Iceland Assails Religious Freedom

It might not seem alarming, at first read, that Iceland, the island nation just outside the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic, the most sparsely populated country in Europe, is poised to ban bris milah. The country, with a population of approximately 334 thousand people, is believed to have, at most, only about 250 Jewish and 2,000 Muslim citizens.

But, with active movements in a number of other countries aiming to outlaw milah, the proposed law, which was crafted by Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir of Iceland’s Progressive Party, may be a proverbial canary in the coal mine — a harbinger of dangers yet to come.

Iceland’s considerable volcanic and geological activity has been mirrored over the years by the country’s progressivism in the social realm. Earlier this year, for instance, it mandated equal pay for equal work performed by women and men.

But, while some of what falls under the contemporary label of “progress” may be appropriate and proper, there is much wrongheadedness, too, that poses as social reform. And Iceland’s proposed milah ban, which, if enacted as currently written could sentence violators to up to six years in prison, falls squarely into that category.

The ban claims to be concerned with children’s rights, but it is seen by some well-informed observers to be fueled in fact by a desire to prevent Muslim immigration. Which may also explain much of the enthusiasm in other European countries for similar bans.

The Icelandic bill, in fact, comes against a backdrop of a number of European countries prohibiting Islamic religious dress. The Danish parliament is currently planning to debate a bill banning full-face veils in public.

And last year, Belgium voted to ban halal and kosher slaughter, citing animal rights. Poland’s government has also proposed a similar law.

In 2013, representatives from Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Greenland released a joint resolution urging their governments to ban circumcision in young boys when there is no medical reason for it.

As was reported earlier in these pages, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt asserted that the Icelandic measure was initiated by a Danish group, and focused on Iceland rather than its home country due to the strength of religious groups in Denmark, which is home to an estimated 200,000 Muslims, approximately 3.7 percent of the population. But many Danes would like to see a similar law.

And such sentiment is not limited to Iceland or Scandinavia. Two years ago, a British family court judge said that young children should not be circumcised until they are old enough to decide for themselves.

Ms. Gunnarsdottir, the Iceland bill’s sponsor, insisted that it was not aimed “against religion.” She cited the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’s proclamation that children who are capable of forming their own views have the right to “express those views freely.” Needless to say, though, a baby possesses few if any views, and it is his parents, as in all areas, medical, religious and otherwise, who make decisions about his best interests.

In this and similar religious rights issues, Jews and Muslims are allies. And representatives of the Muslim community, and even of the Roman Catholic Church, have spoken out against the proposed law as an attack on religious freedom.

The Bishop of Reykjavik, Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir, warned that “if this bill becomes law … Judaism and Islam will become criminalized religions.” She labeled such moves as “extremism,” and contended that the law would make Jewish and Muslim people feel “unwelcome” in Iceland. Which may be precisely the law’s intent.

Kjartan Njalsson, an editor at the Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið, wrote an editorial opposing the bill, contending that the idea of throwing people in prison was “barbaric” and “completely absurd.”

And, of course, Jewish organizations have also been outspoken about the issue. A spokesperson for the British group Milah UK said that milah “is a non-negotiable element of Jewish identity, common to Jews from all backgrounds and respected in liberal democratic countries. For a country such as Iceland, that considers itself a liberal democracy to ban it, thus making sustainable Jewish life in the country impossible, is extremely concerning.”

The Icelandic circumcision bill has cross-party backing and wide public support, according to Ms. Gunnarsdóttir. If it passes its first reading, it will go into committee stage for several months before it can become law.

That said, while the bill has eight co-sponsors and is popular with the public, it does not have the formal backing of any government ministers, and is considered unlikely to garner a majority in the 63-seat Iceland parliament.

It should not. A decisive defeat will signal respect for religious rights.