Guestview: Ritual slaughter ban reflects fights over food and faith in the Netherlands
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Martijn de Koning is a Dutch anthropologist in the Faculty of Religious Studies at Radboud University in Nijmegen. This is an shortened version of an analysis originally posted on his blog CLOSER.
By Martijn de Koning
The Dutch parliament has voted to ban ritual animal slaughter. In a proposal condemned by Muslim and Jewish organisations, the Party for the Animals wanted a complete ban on dhabiha and shechita — the ritual slaughtering by Muslims and Jews — in cases where the animals were not stunned before being killed. The ban will mostly affect orthodox Jews since all of the shechita slaughtering involves animals fully conscious, while in the case of dhabiba this is the case in only 25%-40%. In order to get this bill passed through the lower house of parliament (a second vote is necessary in the Senate), a compromise was established: Jewish and Muslim communities have a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by dhabiba and shechita (and not stunning them) do not experience more pain than those animals that are stunned before killing.
In the recent Dutch debates about ritual slaughter, food has become a field where people battle over political, religious, economic, social and animal welfare issues. I do not think it is that speculative to say that the Animal Party has profitted from three major developments in Dutch society.
1. First of all, the animosity towards ritual slaughter is clearly related to the animosity about Islam. When the proposal for the bill was mentioned for the first time, the debate was about Islam and not about Jews.
2. Second, the proposal and parliamentary vote signal a change in the relation between the religious and the secular. With the current compromise, the burden of proof is not on the state but on religous communities that ritual slaughter does not lead to greater pain than stunning. Given the evidence on that issue right now, and the fact they have to show that something ‘is not’ (i.e. prove a negative), this will be an almost impossible endeavour.
In the voting in parliament, the support for the Jewish and Muslim communities came largely from the three Christian parties who voted unanimously against the law. For some, this is the victory of modernity and secular society over ancient or even backward religion, for the other it is attacking the freedom of religion in society. Not all Muslims and Jews prefer the old way of slaughter, but it appears that all of them are against the new law. The pro-ban side has been described as supporters of the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, but the reality is more complex. Wilders struggled with this issue since not only that Muslims will be targeted, but also Jews. The Freedom Party wants to uphold an image as defenders of the Jewish community and Israel. One idea somehow got lost in the debates about this bill — that there may be people who are not anti-religion in general or anti-Islam in particular, but support the ban because they think animal welfare is more important that religious convictions.
3. A third development may signal a trend already been set in motion when the Party for the Animals was elected in parliament several years ago. Although environmentalists are not generally held in high regard by the more rightist political parties and their constuencies, the Party for the Animals is seen as a decent, somewhat atypical party that deserves respect for its quest on animal rights. There seems to be a strong place for animal rights in Dutch society, as long as it appears decent, not too left wing and outside the circles of the established parties. This party is too small (with only two seats of out 150 in the lower house of parliament) to have actual power, but with the right timing they can gain momentum and accomplish things that would otherwise have been impossible. In the past, religious groups had considerable autonomy and the case of ritual slaughter is partly a remnant of that system. But the Party for the Animals has now succeeded in putting animal rights first and making the regulations more state-centered.
The debate over ritual slaughtering is not over yet. Given the compromise, we may have the same debate next year over the question if ritual slaughtering is good for animals. The bill has still to pass the Senate. Both the supporters of the ban and its opponents will continue their campaigns, which will probably revolve around the three developments I have mentioned here. Until then we have some time to catch up with reading about the importance of food:
- The anthropology of food and eating by Mintz and Du Bois in Ann. Rev. of Anthropology (2002) gives a good overview of the debates and publications in anthropology
- Regulating halal and kosher foods: Different arrangements between state, industry and religious actors by Tetty Havinga in Erasmus Law Review (2010) comparing the Netherlands with US on the regulation of halal food and kosher food.