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Jews and Muslims in Sweden outraged over call to ban male circumcision

The leader of Sweden's Centre Party has said she "regrets" a party vote to work for a ban on non-medical circumcision, after Jewish and Muslim groups criticized the decision.

Jews and Muslims in Sweden outraged over call to ban male circumcision
Jewish and Muslims group have criticized the decision. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

What happened?

Sweden's Centre Party voted in favour of banning circumcision (omskärelse) of boys in the absence of a medical reason, during the party's annual meeting in Karlstad at the weekend.

The main purpose of the meeting was to vote on the party's official stance in several social issues, including whether to remove restrictions on blood donations from gay and bisexual men (this proposal was rejected) and whether to introduce legal recognition of a third gender (this proposal was accepted).

The decision on circumcision, taken by party commissioners, went against the official party line, and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf has said she “regrets” the outcome.

The Centre Party is not currently in government, but is part of a four-party deal, along with the Liberal Party, which allows the centre-left Social Democrats and Green Party to govern.

What does the party decision mean?

Despite being unanimously rejected by the party board (partistyrelse) which is made up of Lööf and 18 other high-ranking Centre Party politicians, the rejection was overturned by party commissioners (ombud) who voted in favour of the ban by 314 to 166 votes.

However, the final decision was that the party should work to ban all non-medical circumcisions of boys, rather than a total ban on circumcision which some party members had advocated for.

Following the meeting, party vice chairman Anders W Jonsson told press: “This was not a decision that the party leadership wanted.” He said that those who called for a ban on circumcision were focused on child rights, and that the debate had not been related to religion.

“This isn't something we plan to write a motion on,” said Lööf on Sunday.

The next step, according to her, is for the party board to analyze the decision made at the meeting and work out the best way for the party to “work towards” such a ban, in line with the decision. 

Even if the party did end up submitting a motion to ban circumcision, it's unlikely it would get far. In the lead-up to 2018's election, both the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) and the Left Party told Sweden's Judisk Krönika they were in favour of an 18-year age limit on the procedure. No other party said it would support such a policy or any other kind of ban or restriction, although the Green Party described male circumcision as “problematic”.


Annie Lööf addressing the Centre Party conference on Thursday. Photo: Tommy Pedersen/TT

What was the reaction?

Both Jewish and Muslim groups criticized the party decision.

Aron Verständig, chairperson of The Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, told the Expressen newspaper: “I am very surprised and very disappointed. This means, if the proposal becomes reality, that it will be completely impossible to live as a Jew or a Muslim in Sweden.”

Lööf said she “understood” the criticism and had been in contact with both Jewish and Muslim leaders in Sweden.

“For us, it's an important question to protect freedom of religion and we stand behind that 100 percent,” she said.

What are Sweden's existing laws on circumcision?

Since 2001, Swedish law has stated that boys may only be circumcised by a qualified medical practitioner or a person who has been licensed by the National Swedish Board of Health and Welfare. There is no rule governing the motivations for circumcision, but it is required to give the boy as much information as possible and clarify his own wishes, and not to carry out the procedure against his will.

In a parliamentary motion in 2007/2008, Lööf herself called for the law banning genital mutilation of women to be made gender-neutral, in order to cover circumcision of boys without medical motivation. However, she has since said that she has changed her mind on this.


Aron Verständig, head of a major Swedish Jewish association, criticized the move. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

How does the situation in Sweden compare with other countries?

Rates of circumcision vary across the world. It is most common in Muslim countries and regions and Israel, while rates are low in most of Europe as well as Asia, Latin America, and parts of southern Africa. 

In the US, a majority of adult men are circumcised but rates of neonatal circumcision have fallen in recent years.

In Germany, a court ruling in 2012 stirred up debate when a Cologne court said the religious circumcision of a young boy amounted to illegal grievous bodily harm. However, lawmakers voted later in the year to keep the practice legal when carried out by a medically trained professional. And last year in Denmark, a petition calling for a ban on male circumcision went to parliament, but lost political support later the same year.

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SWEDEN ELECTS

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

What's Sweden talking about this week? In The Local's Sweden Elects newsletter, editor Emma Löfgren rounds up some of the main talking points ahead of the Swedish election.

Sweden Elects: The latest political news as the election campaign kicks off

In an interview that could have jeopardised his job a decade ago, Social Democrat Immigration Minister Anders Ygeman’s suggestion in DN that there should be a 50 percent cap on non-Nordic immigrants in troubled areas of Swedish cities showed how the debate has shifted in recent years.

That said, his comments did not go without criticism. The Left Party slammed them as “racist”, the Greens and the Centre Party also criticised them, and so did the Moderates and some within the Social Democrats.

Ygeman himself said that he had been misunderstood, that he had never meant it as an actual proposal, and that factors such as crime and unemployment were far more important in terms of integration.

“But of course segregation is not just class-based, it also has an ethnic dimension. If you have areas where almost everyone is from other countries, it’s harder to learn Swedish, and if it’s harder to learn Swedish, it’s harder to get a job,” he told public broadcaster SVT.

What do you think? Email me if you want to share your thoughts.

Campaign posters and a new poll

The centre-left Social Democrats and the Moderates, the largest right-wing opposition party, both unveiled their campaign posters last week, which I guess means that the summer holiday lull is officially over and the election campaign is now definitely under way. Just over a month to go.

It’s interesting that the Social Democrats are clearly trying to turn this into a “presidential” style campaign, taking advantage of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s overwhelming popularity compared to the Moderates’ Ulf Kristersson, whose reception among voters is lukewarm.

A poll by the DN newspaper and Ipsos a month ago suggested that 37 percent of voters want to see Andersson as prime minister, compared to 22 percent who preferred Kristersson (12 percent preferred the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson, and the other party leaders did not get more than four percent each).

Andersson is in the unique position where voters like her way more than they like her party – a new opinion poll by Demoskop suggests that 28.7 percent would vote for the Social Democrats if the election was held today (the Moderates would get 20.3 percent). The same poll has all the right-wing parties with a slight majority compared to the left-wing parties.

Anyway, the Social Democrats’ campaign posters cover pensions, schools (specifically, limiting profit-making free schools), crime and law and order. Climate change is conspicuously absent, but a party spokesperson told reporters it will be more prominent in its social media campaigns.

When Kristersson, on the other hand, spoke at his party’s event to kick off their election campaign, he emphasised how he’s got a viable coalition on his side – a jibe at the Social Democrats, who will struggle to get their partners (specifically the Centre and Left parties) to collaborate.

He also reiterated his praise for the Sweden Democrats, and The Local asked several experts if the Moderates are the same party that fought the 2018 election, when Kristersson promised Holocaust survivor Hédi Fried he would not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats after the election.

Election pledges

The Local’s Becky Waterton has looked at the election pledges of Sweden’s four main parties, the Social Democrats, Moderates, Sweden Democrats and Centre Party. Click here to read her guide, it’s a really useful roundup.

And what about Covid? Is Sweden’s handling of the pandemic not going to be a talking point in this election? No, at least not if the parties have their way. The Social Democrats run the government, but most of the regions (who are in charge of healthcare) are run by right-wing coalitions. So from a strictly realpolitik perspective, no party is able to attack another without putting themselves at risk of becoming a target. Best forget about it.

In other political news…

… a Sweden Democrat member of parliament has been accused of sending unsolicited dick pics to women, the Moderates want to legalise altruistic surrogacy in Sweden, the Christian Democrats want a national scheme to improve maternity care, the Liberals want to make it harder for people with a criminal record to become Swedish citizens, and Centre Party leader Annie Lööf hit the campaign trail just before the weekend by pledging to reject any proposal for raised taxes after the election.

Sweden Elects is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in the Swedish election race. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive the column plus several extra features as a newsletter in their email inbox each week. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.

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