The Cologne Circumcision Judgment: A Blow Against Liberal Legal Pluralism


In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean Paul Sartre writes that violence against the colonized ‘seeks to dehumanize them. Everything will be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs and to destroy their culture…’. Power and violence however depend on the legal language to appear rational, legitimate and systematic. The law in its turn relies on power in order to relate itself to competing normative orders that either strengthen and/or coexist with other social norms, moral convictions and religious belief system. Keeping this in mind, the recent court judgment by the Landgericht Cologne is problematic, to say the least. Arguably, the court – by employing the monopoly of state power – assists in canceling out normative orders beyond state law, namely Jewish and Muslim religious laws and traditions. Thus, the ruling can be read to suggest that the German legal order suppresses the rituals of its religious (and circumcised) minorities. Given that circumcision has perpetually been at the center of European anti-Semitic sentiments, the heated debates over the Cologne court ruling proves that the future of circumcision is not only closely linked to its past, it also demands from us to examine the extent to which western liberal legal pluralism can keep its promise in the future.

Legal pluralism encompasses, above all, a reconciliation of conflicting normative orders that is often obscured by the asymmetric distinction between the public (objective) and the private (emotional, subjective) spheres. Conceptually as well as practically, the public/private distinction is almost impossible to maintain: not only do the ‘public’ and ‘private’ constantly collapse into each other, they mean very little each on its own ...

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