Which takes precedence? Cultural norms, or religious doctrine?
That is a dilemma that has plagued nations since the dawn of democracy. When royalty ruled the world’s most powerful kingdoms, of course, the king, queen or emperor could simply dictate which religious regulations would govern civil society.
From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who were considered gods by the people over whom they ruled, to the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century declared that Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, to the nations of Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where Muslim leaders are the highest civil authorities, theocracies have long functioned as divinely inspired governments.
Yet modern-day democracies in Europe and North America have ostensibly implemented secular governments, with civil laws to govern their populations. Such systems function more or less efficiently — most of the time. But when clashes arise between the tenets of a particular faith and the laws enacted by elected officials, they often erupt into a heated partisan struggle.
Such is the case with kosher and halal slaughter. Those religiously inspired regulations date back centuries, and although they might appear outdated when viewed through the prism of 21st century sensibilities, devout believers insist that such rules are the bedrock of their faith.
The Real Reason for Opposition
Nowhere has the contemporary clash of “modern” mores and traditional religious practice become more heated than in the European Union. Even as the unprecedented immigration of Muslims from African and Middle Eastern countries — often former colonies — has created a clash of cultures, the emergence of animal rights activists determined to marginalize, if not eradicate, livestock production and meat-eating has turned ritual, or religious, slaughter into a raging controversy.
In Holland, long one of Europe’s most liberal countries, animal activists are campaigning for strict limits or even an outright ban on ritual slaughter, in which the animal’s throat is cut with a sharp knife under the supervision of a religious officials working for an approved certification organization.
The Dutch Party for the Animals, which holds five seats in that nation’s Parliament, began lobbying for constraints on ritual slaughter in 2010, and since then a resolution was passed requiring Jewish and Islamic groups to develop slaughter practices considered more humane.
According to a special report published by The New York Times last week, both Jewish and Muslim groups in the EU have agreed to make changes in an effort to preserve their religious practice, and many European countries — Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Lithuania — already have regulations limiting or even banning ritual slaughter.
Although such authorities as Temple Grandin have declared that ritual slaughter, done swiftly and properly by well-trained personnel, is as humane as conventional captive bolt stunning, nevertheless, animal rights activists have consistently portrayed the procedure as cruel and outdated.
But in the European countries with a legacy of anti-Semitism, as well as the current influx of Muslim immigrants, demanding an end to ritual slaughter, even if the intention is to advance animal welfare, heightens tensions in those communities.
“Some of those who try and ban our customs are in essence trying to make Europe more uncomfortable for Jews,” Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, told The New York Times. “The essence and centrality of our life are our ancient traditions, and if our customs are not welcome, [neither] are our communities.”
Indeed, as The Times story noted, Holland has but one kosher slaughter plant and only a single kosher deli still operating in Amsterdam. A ban on religious slaughter would doom both of those businesses. Currently, of the 500 million animals processed annually for consumption in Holland, about 1.6 million are used for halal, while only 3,000 are processed as kosher meat.
Of course, the reason the kosher market is so small in Holland and elsewhere in Western Europe is due to another and more infamous ritual slaughter, one that took place during the Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s.
Animal vs. Human Rights
When religious teachings conflict with human rights, that’s a serious problem. The marginalization of women and such practices as genital mutilation are abhorrent, no matter how earnestly the men who enforce such practices claim they’re divinely inspired.
But with kosher and halal slaughter, there’s another dynamic at work. The activists pushing so diligently for a ban on those methods aren’t finding fault with the religious dogma. Their ultimate goal is the imposition of a vegan lifestyle on all of society.
Banning kosher or halal slaughter is merely a convenient weapon with which to scapegoat meat production, processing and consumption.
Their objections are rooted in the ancient practice of animal husbandry, not the more recent religious revelations concerning the procurement of a true believer’s dietary choices.
Marianne Thieme, an Animal Party leader and Dutch MP, told The Times that she is planning to reintroduce legislation this month or in early February to impose an outright ban on religious slaughter.
“It’s not legitimate any longer that treatment of an animal depends on the religious beliefs of its slaughterer,” she said.
In assessing the motives of Thieme and her followers, it doesn’t get any more straightforward than that.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.