What’s been described in news reports as “an unlikely alliance of animal rights advocates and xenophobic far right politicians” has come together to support a bill now before the Dutch Parliament that would ban the ancient tradition of ritual slaughter of animals espoused by members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths.
Holland, of course, has a long tradition of openness and personal freedom, as anyone who’s walked the streets of Amsterdam can attest. In fact, back in the 1600s, soon after the Protestant Revolution, the country became one of Europe’s first to allow Jews to openly practice their religion.
But due to political expediency, that tradition may soon be turned on its head, as Marianne Thieme, a leader of the Party of the Animals and a member of parliament, has joined with the xenophobic Freedom Party to support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter.
You can guess where Thieme and her ilk are coming from.
“Islamic and Jewish traditions were way ahead 3,000 years ago when it came to treating animals well,” she wrote on her blog. “But that does not change the fact that based on new insights, their methods of slaughter are in need of reform today.”
The far right’s embrace of the bill, which is expected to go to a parliamentary vote later this month, is based on its outright hostility toward the growing Muslim population in the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, Jewish and Muslim groups both labeled the initiative an affront to freedom of religion.
“I can speak for the Dutch Jewish Community, and I think for the wider Jewish world, that this law raises grave concerns about infringements on religious freedom,” Ruben Vis, spokesman for the Netherlands CJO, an umbrella of Jewish organizations, told YnetNews.com.
Abdulfatteh Ali-Salah, director of Halal Correct, a certification body for Dutch halal meat, said he felt the debate “made Muslims feel Dutch society is more interested in animal welfare than fair treatment of its Muslim citizens. If the law goes through now there’s nothing else to do but protest,” he said. “And that's what we’ll do.”
Under Jewish and Muslim dietary laws and practices, animals must be slaughtered while still awake, by swiftly cutting the main arteries of their necks with razor-sharp knives.
The science surrounding such slaughter techniques is uncertain. A 2009 study in New Zealand that monitored calves’ brain waves during kosher slaughter concluded that the animals probably were aware of their pain. That led New Zealand to outlaw the practice in 2010.
However, Temple Grandin has criticized flaws in the New Zealand study, noting in particular that the knife used was probably too short.
“The special long knife used in kosher slaughter is important,” she wrote on her website. “When the knife is used correctly on adult cattle, there was little or no behavioral reaction,” indicating, she concluded, that the animals did not show signs of suffering before falling unconscious.
A divisive issue
The main political parties in the Netherlands are divided over the issue. Polls show majority support among Dutch voters for the ban (in the same way most American voters express sympathy for proposed bans against cages and stalls—it’s a “consequence-free” throwaway vote, as far as they’re concerned). One of the two parties in the Dutch Cabinet, the Christian Democrats, opposes the law out of fear for damage to the country’s international image as a haven of tolerance for religious minorities. The other, the pro-business VVD Party, has yet to state which way its legislators would vote.
If the Netherlands does outlaw kosher and halal slaughter procedures, it would join other Scandinavian and Baltic countries and Switzerland, countries whose bans are mostly traceable to pre-World War II anti-Semitism.
The larger issue in play is Holland’s growing Muslim population. Thanks to a wave of immigration in the 1990s, Muslims now number about one million in a country of 16 million citizens. In contrast, Dutch Jews number only an estimated 40,000 to 50,000, after so many of their community were killed in Nazi concentration camps.
Of course, despite their own religious fervor for the cause, animal activists show no respect for any other religious traditions.
“Religious freedom isn’t unlimited,” Thieme stated.
Yes, and based on those “new insights” Thieme loves to cite, circumcision is no longer preferred by most pediatricians. Would the Party of Animals deem it appropriate to pass a law ordering all religions to abandon that practice, as well?
Or how about the Catholic Church’s ban on women the priesthood? Surely “new insights” would dictate the propriety of a bill to order Rome to begin ordaining women, right?
Or how about this one: Would the Freedom Party be supportive of a law banning all discrimination against gays and lesbians? While many devout religious practitioners point to scriptural proscriptions against homosexuality, shouldn’t modern “insights” trump people’s antiquated religious beliefs?
According to Thieme, yes.
“While anyone who practices a religion has the right to their own religious truths, it doesn’t give them the right to violate the welfare of another human or an animal,” she wrote. “So, where necessary, it is the task of the government to intervene and curb the freedom of religion.”
Which is exactly why the Freedom Party is onboard with this bill: To curb what they deem as the unacceptable religious practices of Muslim citizens of the Netherlands.
Either way, it’s discrimination, pure and simple.
If Thieme and her Animal Party members want to change ritual slaughter practices—and for the record, there is good reason to do so—then they need to petition the religious leaders of the Jewish and Islamic faiths to reconsider their traditions. Certainly, the history of all major religions indicates an evolutionary pattern over time. That’s why there are Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed branches of Judaism, with substantial differences in beliefs and practices.
But for secular governments to pass laws that directly and specifically ban religious practices that certain segments of society deem unacceptable is to slide down that proverbially slippery slope toward intolerance, hatred and bigotry.
For Holland—of all places, a country that suffered the horrors of Nazi occupation—to be the locus of such a movement is to underscore just how pernicious extremism, whether in support of animals or in opposition to Muslims, can be to any nation’s proudest and most sacred traditions of freedom.
Shame on both groups.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator