The Ethical Dilemma: Cutting to the Chase on Conversion and Circumcision

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Bringing Up Baby, Muslim Style: I am married to a Muslim woman who does not practice her religion but is still a believer. To get her family’s approval, she wanted to have a traditional Muslim wedding and for our marriage to be verified in her birth country. In order to do this I had to convert from my religion, which I finally did because my wife is the most important person in my life.

Of course, converting was against my personal beliefs since I think that everyone is free to follow any religion he or she wants. I was raised as a Christian but I do not consider myself to be religious. I don’t deny that there might be some force in the universe that created everything—call it God, or whatever—but I also don’t believe that nonreligious people will go to hell, etc. I respect science and believe that every person should be kind and good in life, respect others (no matter their political/religious beliefs or race), and contribute in a positive way to the world and the planet. We are all equals no matter what.

What worries me is my mother-in-law, who is very religious and has some influence on my wife. She probably expects our baby son to become a Muslim, meaning that he will learn about their prophets, the Koran and all its stories, and so on. (She gave us books for kids that have stories for all the prophets).

I want my son to learn about all religions, and when he’s old enough he can choose for himself if he wants to follow a religion, identify as an atheist, or anything in between. My wife wants to teach him about her religion (in a light way), which is ok for me as long as she doesn’t force it on him. She also wants to get him circumcised (because she strongly believes that this is better for his health) but this is where I disagree.

Meanwhile, my parents are unhappy that our son will likely not be a Christian, but what they’re most worried about is that Islam could be forced upon him. They expect some “equality” from both sides, if you understand what I mean.

I am fighting to make it clear to my parents and mother-in-law (because the father-in-law does not care about religion) that I want my son to choose what he wants when he’s old enough and that no one except his parents should be involved. At the same time I worry the circumcision thing is going to become a big argument.

What’s your opinion on this?

–Unkindest Cut


Dear Cut,

There’s a lot going on here, but perhaps I can help you simplify. As you yourself noted more than once, this is between you and your wife. I don’t know how or why your mother-in-law seems to have assumed so much influence over the two of you (beyond her husband and beyond your parents), but the only way she obtains that power is if you grant it to her. So stop that right now.

Let’s go back to what you and your wife want, if you can remember what that was before you lost your way. You and your wife need to decide about circumcision. As discussed in a past column, the jury is out on whether circumcision is a negative or positive health-wise, so you need to have a full, informed discussion of all the pros and cons based on the latest scientific evidence. Apart from the hygiene, safety and sexual pleasure issues, circumcision can be a very emotionally-charged subject with a great deal of baggage related to traditions and customs. But if you are strongly against it, you can at least make a case for waiting, ideally until your son is old enough to express his own preference. Once the cut is made, there’s no going back.

As for your son’s religious education, you need to sort out how much of what your wife is expressing is what she herself wants and how much is her mother speaking through her. Does she really advocate for “Muslim light” or is that just a ploy to pave the way for full-bore indoctrination? Aim for balance. As you’ve said, you’re fine with teaching your son about Islam as long as he also learns about other faiths (which I hope will give equal time to non-theistic ethical philosophies such as humanism). From what you’ve said about your wife, she should be comfortable with this arrangement unless her mother is pulling the strings, or your wife has been misrepresenting her true position, or her position is shifting toward wanting a strictly Muslim family.

Speaking of misrepresenting, do you recognize that when you agreed to become Muslim, you were sending out the message that you were embracing that faith as your own? Did anyone besides your wife—and perhaps not even she—know that your fingers were crossed behind your back? I understand that you love your wife and want to make her happy, but going through the motions of converting without accepting the faith was a charade that landed you in the position you’re in now, with your wife and mother-in-law expecting your child to be raised Muslim (after all, both of his parents are Muslim), and your own family feeling shafted.

I would have advised you against converting just for show and appeasement, but (as with circumcision) you can’t undo what’s already done. You can, however, assert yourself going forward and make it clear that you don’t accept the Muslim faith as the one and only—for yourself or for your son. And stand firm that this is no one’s business but the two or three of you: you, your wife, and your son.

  • Alawon

    Agreed. The LW’s first mistake was converting. Even if it wasn’t in his heart, it set up expectations that are going to be very difficult if not impossible to mitigate. Time for a very clear conversation.

  • westernwynde

    Conversion is not like circumcision. At least in this country, it absolutely can be undone, and probably should be in order to put things on an honest footing.

  • Robert Batson

    Your wife will only become more religious as she ages and becomes more secure. You must assert youself now. Many mothers will attempt to continue the control of their children. I suggest moving along distance away from the problem preferably too an area difficult to reach by plane.
    Good luck.

  • Outlaw

    If you don’t want to enhance the health of your son now, you’re pathetic. My advice: quit whining and convert and cooperate, or leave. Simple.

  • vickie

    First the easy one, call it what it really is Genital Mutilation. Mutilating or surgically altering someone else with no genuine medical reason is a violation of their most basic human right plain and simple. Don’t do it! Children are born with brains like sponges. If you give your child access to all knowledge without prejudice there really is no better parent.

  • Acadian Flag

    He converted because it is the law in some Muslim countries that a woman can’t marry a non-Muslim. Men can, but women can’t. She wanted the marriage recognized in that country, thus he had to “convert”.

  • Minyassa

    Converting when your heart was not in it is your choice, and ultimately, you are the one who has to live with it. But your instinct to protect your son from an indelible choice made by someone else about his body is dead right. If you would not allow your own parents to tattoo a cross on his forehead, do not allow his mother’s family to cosmetically alter his genitals. The claims of health benefits are fraudulent anyway, it’s *all* about someone else’s religious or cultural conditioning.

  • Joe Knowles

    Say of me what you will, but if a person’s belief in a fairy tale requires me to change who I am, then they aren’t my “significant other.” They’re not significant at all.
    My late wife was a xtian, and for 16 years we never had a problem. Then, she died from cancer that she was sure her gad had given her. Even to her last day, still no conflict.
    I’m only 44. I don’t plan to be alone the rest of my days. I also don’t plan to suspend logic and reason to participate in someone’s adherence to an ancient myth. The world is full of completely reasonable people ( okay, not “full” ), so I have no doubt that I can find a short, skinny, red-headed atheist to raise a little hell with. Too particular? My wife wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Arjen Bootsma

    Just as kosher and halal laws make sense for an era without freezers, refrigerators and our current hygienic equipment and standards, so did circumcision make sense in an era without clean water, showers, other personal hygiene measures or antibiotics. These days there is no medical reason for the wholesale genital mutilation of male babies, we do not live in primitive circumstances anymore (some of the poorest countries excluded).

  • Arjen Bootsma

    When an adult man, who is not circumcised, converts to Islam, would he be required to get circumcised in the ritual way prescribed for newborns?

  • rg57

    Although I wouldn’t call myself humanist, I recognize that Joan’s is not a humanist answer, for many reasons.

    One reason is that a humanist would recognize that a child with a penis may nevertheless be a girl, and that it will be for the child to inform parents of this, on their own schedule. If you remove foreskin, which is two-thirds of the shaft skin, it then doesn’t leave sufficient tissue to create a vagina in the best way, meaning that intestine will be used, which is obviously riskier. It’s not a parents’ right to deprive a girl of this choice.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear what Joan would tell a family considering female circumcision? All the same arguments are made by women who support one or more of the circumcision procedures on women and girls.

    “I worry the circumcision thing is going to become a big argument.”

    It will. You need to defend your son. He needs you.

  • Slithy Tove

    I can’t solve the conversion problem, but I now tend to favor early circumcision for several reasons.
    I was circumcised as a Catholic baby, and I have never regretted it.
    At the time that my first child was born, I considered circumcision to be mutilation and opposed it.
    Fortunately, my child was a girl, so circumcision was not an issue.
    Since then, I have read several reports that circumcised men have fewer medical infections and cancers, so now I favor circumcision.
    I also worked once with a guy who said that he was circumcised at age 24 because of an infection.
    Besides the normal pain in a sensitive area, young men have frequent erections, regardless of pain.
    So the doctor gave him strong smelling salts that he inhaled almost continually for two weeks, whenever he needed to get distracted from thinking about sex or looking at a pretty girl.
    Finally, my current girlfriend tells me that she is more attracted to a circumcised penis than a natural penis.
    As for the possibility of future transgender surgery, I guess that you would be playing the percentages.

  • Ovy Stu

    I’ve heard there is some school said that circumcision is mandatory, but the other school said it’s not. You maybe could read more article and search about it and explain it to your mom in law.

  • Ovy Stu

    was more lenient; he said: “If a person enters Islam, it is not essential for
    him to be circumcised.” And he said: “Black and white people embraced Islam,
    but not one of them was checked or forced to get circumcised.” hope it helped… 🙂 PS: mostly scholars said to circumcised.