Contested Multiculturalism in Germany? - the Debate on Circumcision

Friday, July 18, 2014: 6:00 PM
Room: Harbor Lounge B
Oral Presentation
Susanne LEMKE , Oldenburg University, Oldenburg, Germany

In the words of Angela Merkel multiculturalism has “utterly failed” in Germany (16/10/2010). Although the former German President Christian Wulff had stated “Islam also belongs in Germany” only a few weeks earlier (03/10/2010) the debate seemed to be settled. In contrast to other European countries adopting official policies of multiculturalism, German politics did not strive to incorporate multiculturalist elements into policy making or the legal system. However, with this attitude the German secular state will face challenges with respect to the religious sphere. The 2012 medial outcry due to ceremonial circumcision recently demonstrated this ongoing societal discussion.

In this case, right-wing politicians as well as a coalition of secularist actors, and children's rights groups opposed circumcision, an essential ritual practice for the Muslim and Jewish religious communities. As a result of this debate, an exception was introduced into the German Civil Code that made circumcision of boys for religious reasons legally possible. After this step the medial attention decelerated and left behind what can be seen as an attempt to introduce multicultural elements in an otherwise mostly secular jurisdiction.

My sociological take on the debate goes even beyond this description. I argue from a point of social theory that takes into account the 'boundaries of the social world' (Luckmann 1970). From this perspective it becomes clear that it was necessary for secular politicians, jurists, and participants of the debate to adapt the jurisdiction to the reality of the religious communities living in Germany. This included a reinterpretation of circumcision as a practice potentially ‘cutting back’ children’s rights into a means of their symbolic inclusion into the social sphere of a religious community. In my presentation I will elaborate on this theoretical approach as well as its implementations for the analysis of the debate and the concept of multiculturalism.