By Azeem Ibrahim
In October, the Dutch Senate will consider the ban on ritual slaughter enacted by the parliament’s lower house in June 2011. Self-described as “an institution that pays little heed to ideas which happen to be fashionable at the time,” the Senate has no one party that holds a majority. It will therefore be interesting to see whether it is able to protect religious freedom or succumb to the pressure to limit it through this law.
The banning of religious ritual slaughter of animals has deeply offended observant Jews and Muslims in the Netherlands, where the legislation passed by a margin of 116 to 30 votes. Effectively banning halal (permissible according to Islamic law) and kosher meat according to both religions’ traditions and dietary laws, the legislation was proposed by parliamentarian Marianne Thieme, the leader of the Party for the Animals, out of concern for cruelty to animals. Thieme denies that her bill had any anti-religious intent but it was enthusiastically taken up by Geert Wilders, leader of the far right, anti-Islamic Dutch Freedom Party.
The bill finally passed with an amendment allowing ritual slaughter on the condition that firm scientific evidence is provided within five years to the European Food Safety Authority, proving that slaughter without pre-stunning causes animals no unnecessary suffering.
Jewish and Muslim communities are unhappy with the compromise, saying that it puts the future of religious practices into the hands of scientists and avoids the issue of religious freedom. This is a bizarre state of affairs in a pluralist European society. A recent report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance notes that the tone of Dutch political and public debate around integration has shown a “dramatic deterioration” in the last ten years. The surprising recent electoral success of the Dutch Freedom Party can be explained by the fact that it provides parliamentary support to the minority cabinet, which in turn seems inclined to protect Wilders, perhaps because of the minority cabinet’s fear of losing its ability to govern.
Some Dutch politicians however, have been outspoken in their call for parliamentary debate about xenophobia in the Netherlands, notably Tofik Dibi, one of seven members of parliament who identify as practicing Muslims. Dutch Labor Party leader Job Cohen has also called for dialogue on the need “to moderate our tone…not to avoid debate but to engage in it openly and with mutual respect.” One hopes that these voices of reason will be heeded.
The common cause of Jews and Muslims uniting against the ban in their concern to protect their traditions of halal and kosher meat is due to the importance both religions place on preventing animal suffering. Many Jews and Muslims view the modern mechanical methods of stunning and killing animals in Western slaughterhouses far more barbaric, and no one seems yet to have come up with a positive scientific measurement of the pain felt by the animals at the point of death by either method.
The arguments for and against ritual slaughter are passionate, subjective and liable to misinterpretation, and provide a potent mixture for populist politicians to exploit when national economies are in trouble and unemployment is rife. Hopefully, the Dutch Senate will reconsider the issue in the light of freedom of religion as laid down by Article 9 in the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The Senate’s treatment of the ban will be a test of this mature liberal European democracy’s ability to provide consensus, compromise or conformity on a divisive issue within a centuries-old tradition of liberalism, human rights and tolerance for religious minorities.
(Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and World Fellow at Yale University. To see more of his writings, visit www.azeemibrahim.com and follow him on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.)