Ireland beat Australia to marriage equality by five years, and with a Yes victory every bit as resounding as ours. Given Ireland’s reputation as a devoutly Catholic nation, such an enthusiastic embrace of what Rome still considers an abomination took some observers by surprise. But in the years since owning up to running the world’s biggest paedophile ring, the Catholic church’s influence in every day Irish life has been in freefall. Attending mass – not long ago as much a national pastime as drinking Guinness – is today largely the preserve of the elderly and infirm. And priesthood – a calling once as popular amongst serious-minded young Irishmen as republicanism – is now such an unpopular career choice that the Emerald Isle is importing its clergy from Nigeria and India – much as Saudi Arabia relies on Filipinas and Bangladeshis to clean its toilets. If the upcoming referendum to legalise abortion goes the same way, as everyone expects, it will be an even bigger step towards constitutional secularism. Irish women will no longer be forced to make the ‘journey of shame’ to England to terminate unwanted or dangerous pregnancies, and Irish surgeons will for the first time be able to perform the procedure without risking a murder charge.
It’s good that Ireland is finally getting access to the benefits of progressive liberalism which its European neighbours have long enjoyed. But it will take them some time to catch up with the Scandinavians. Before convicted criminals there will be allowed to have sex with their girlfriends (or boyfriends) during prison visits, for example. Or before their state schoolchildren will be allowed to opt out of homework and exams and uniforms (but not gender awareness classes) with impunity. Nordic countries have always set the bar for institutionalised permissiveness, so it’s appropriate that the most liberal amongst them should be the first to test the limits of that liberalism. This May, Iceland’s Althingi (national parliament) is due to debate a bill which, if passed, will make male circumcision for non-medical reasons illegal. Indeed, which will make circumcision of a boy under the age of 16 for cultural or religious purposes no less a crime than female genital mutilation. From the perspective of a multi-cultural society like Australia this might look like a legislative long shot. But the bill has the support of 400 doctors – which, given that Iceland’s population is about the same as Canberra’s – is a lot of doctors. If the vote goes their way, parents who want their sons to be circumcised will have to take them offshore to do it. And the closest European country where they could do that do that would be, ironically, Ireland. But the arrivals lounges and outpatients clinics of Dublin, Cork and Belfast need not brace themselves for an influx of young Icelandic couples and babies any time soon, since the combined Jewish and Muslim population of Iceland is currently around 300. Understandably, then, the most spirited resistance to the bill has come from rabbis and imams in other Scandinavian countries, and most notably Denmark and Sweden which both now have Muslim populations outnumbering their long-established Jewish communities. Their argument is that outlawing circumcision is a breach of their consitutional right to religious freedom; that it will effectively make it illegal for Icelanders to be either Jewish or Muslim (although the Koran is less prescriptive on the penis point than the Torah). Those supporting the bill, on the other hand, argue that the rights of children to choose their own belief systems trump the rights of the rights of parents to make that choice for them. Both arguments have merit, of course, and the dilemma facing Icelanders over circumcision is a good illustration of the contradiction which hovers in the background of all progressive liberalism: that the only way to make every kind of human behaviour acceptable is to ban some of it.
But those Danish and Swedish rabbis and imams needn’t put all their eggs in the constitutional law basket. A much more effective way to persuade the world to oppose the circumcision ban would be to enlist the support of Hollywood. Or rather, that large tranche of it which spends several months of every year in the shitty frozen wastes of Iceland shooting Game of Thrones.
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