As an exercise in good governance, the mass circumcision ceremony for some 100 boys from disadvantaged families in an old Istanbul square ticks a lot of boxes for Turkey’s ruling AK Party and its voters.
“Circumcision is an important tradition in Islam,” Mayor Ibrahim Kavuncu said with pride as he watched the boys and their families assemble in a square fronting Eyup Sultan Mosque to perform religious rites.
Draped in blue cloaks over cream satin shirts and wearing caps, the boys each carry a small staff. Shepherded into a circle around a janissary band, they practice waving the staves in time to the music.
A day later they will go to a private hospital for a fully paid circumcision.
In AK-controlled municipalities like Eyup, a gritty and pious neighborhood on the southern side of the Golden Horn inlet, connecting with people means giving them what they want.
For any good Muslim family that would include having their boys circumcised, observing religious rites and providing a small feast for relatives and neighbors.
“We place great importance on the festival, not only because it’s a tradition, but because it offers a chance for healthy and hygienic operations for children,” says the mayor.
Built on the site where the Prophet Mohammed’s standard-bearer was reputed to have been buried during the Arab siege of Constantinople in 670, Eyup Sultan Mosque holds a special place in the history of Islam in Turkey.
And many fathers from outside the neighborhood and beyond Istanbul bring their sons here to pray when they are circumcised.
For the boys, the operation will mark an early affirmation of their faith and a step toward manhood − even though some are infants and others are some years away from puberty.
For their families, it is a religious obligation, but also an expense that many find difficult to afford. The operation can cost anywhere between $300 and $800, while paying for the feast and celebrations can typically cost more than $1,000.
Dr. Sefik Ersan, an Ankara-based surgeon who has carried out more than 5,000 circumcision operations, estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of Turks take their children to surgeons.
Many parents choose to pay non-qualified “sunnetci” − traditional circumcisers who often pass their skill from father to son − or barbers, despite the risks of performing the procedure outside a hospital or clinic.
“Some parents demand the operation to be carried out at home. I tell them complications may occur, although the chances are one in a thousand,” Dr. Ersan said.
“Breathing may stop, or drug allergies may be observed. Intervention in such a case would be much harder at home; it’s best not to take risks and take their kids to a medical facility in line with their financial resources.”
A study over a 10-year period in Turkey found that of 200 boys admitted to a hospital with post-circumcision complications, some 85 percent had been circumcised by traditional circumcisers, 10 percent by health technicians and 5 percent by doctors. Out of the 200, one 2-year-old boy died from a hemorrhage.