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.