By Naqib Hamid
This has been a difficult year for multiculturalism in Europe. And it seems that there may be a new controversy in the making as some Dutch lawmakers plan to pass a legislation against ritual slaughter in Netherlands, thereby disallowing Muslims as well as Jews to produce Halal and Koshermeat, respectively. This article examines this issue and its various dimensions.
Some members of the Dutch parliament have been advocating lately the prohibition of slaughter methods prescribed by religious regulation of the Muslim and Jewish communities, causing dismay among the two religious minority communities in Netherlands. The new legislation, having been passed by the Parliament already this June and awaiting consideration in the Dutch Senate, if put into effect, will bar the Muslims and Jews to slaughter animals before these have been stunned; effectively making butchering of animals according to religious rites illegal. If successful, the ban will affect almost a million Muslims living in Netherlands as well as an estimated Jewish community of 40,000-50,000 adherents.
The bill was initially proposed by The Party of the Animals, a political outfit with only two seats out of the 146-seat Dutch Parliament on animal welfare grounds, holding the viewpoint that failing to stun the animals before slaughter subjects them to unnecessary pain and that there is a “worldwide consensus among scientists that animals suffer terrible if they are not first stunned before slaughter.” When brought to the Parliament for debate and discussion it gained support from the centrist parties ‘on secular scientific grounds.’ The move for such a ban, in itself, is a controversial step, having the potential to spark tensions. Yet the entire philosophy of this movement acquires a different meaning, when one notices that controversial personalities like Geert Wilders are its leading supporters.
Analysing the case at hand from the sociology of religion perspective is extremely interesting. First of all is the pluralism debate that lies at the heart of the affair; the increasingly visible nexus of cultural conservatism movements and political advocacy, and the widening gulf between public religion and the secular mindset. Secondly, one wonders whether Europe’s Enlightenment scheme is, in anyway, slowly changing? Thirdly is the fact that this potential ban does not only affect the Muslim community but also the orthodox Jewish groups, something which many Muslims groups may find hard to accept, the general perception being that conservative Europeans have always been pro-other faiths, so as to speak, in comparison to Islam. Also, it will be essential to see how the religious communities, particularly the Muslims across the world, react to this step.
It will also be important to see how the socio-economic dimension of this ban will affect the two communities, if it is put into effect, since both will have to import meat from other parts of Europe for their consumption. Will other European countries also follow suit? And given the privilege to engage with this topic on an existential level, the ban somehow arrives as an intricate test for all of us about what ‘rights’ actually are, whether of human communities or animal populations. And at a deeper level, it should also make us engage in the query about what pain really means, whether to animals or for humans.
In the days ahead, it will be interesting to see how the Muslim and Jewish communities negotiate with the situation. Will the Muslim community in Netherlands join hands with their fellow People of the Book for an organised, collective effort towards revoking the ban or will the traditional negative views dividing the faiths let the ban’s supporters prevail.
Similarly what will be the strategy of the two faith communities to ‘prove’, so as to speak, the validity of slaughtering rites not on religious grounds only but rather, perhaps just as significantly, scientific grounds. Currently the International Union for Muslim Scholars, under Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has been the leading voice for the Muslims in this issue asking ‘Western governments to initiate a scientific symposium inviting specialists on the animal world, religious scholars from minorities and the European Council for Fatwa and Research to discuss the means of scientific slaughter.’ However, Muslim scholarship with its traditional attitude of believing in and propagating taken for granted matters – without realising that the secular-scientism of the West is challenging many of these – may find this to be a perplexing task.
After controversies on religious symbols, dress and architecture as well as freedom of expression, we may soon witness a schism over food and faith in a changing state of affairs in Europe too. Voting on the issue is likely to take place sometime in December. Whether the legislation will be approved by the Dutch senate or not is unclear as yet as some Dutch MPs are calling it a very sensitive matter. However the issue itself shows that the debate over pluralism, religious values, human, and now animal rights, is here to stay.
The writer teaches sociology at the University College Lahore (UCL). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org