Should animal rights trump religious freedom? Muslim and Jewish religious communities in the Netherlands are about to find out.
In an unusual show of unity, the two communities are condemning the Dutch parliament’s initial approval this week of a bill banning the ritual slaughter of livestock.
The looming ban stipulates that animals should be stunned before being slaughtered. Such a method, however, contradicts Jewish and Muslim slaughter rituals that require an animal to be conscious at the time of death.
Supporters of the ban insist it is aimed at minimizing unnecessary pain and suffering by animals. Many Dutch Jews and Muslims, however, argue it would marginalize religious minorities.
The Netherlands, a nation of 16 million people, is home to more than 1 million Muslims and a 50,000-strong Jewish community.
Kosher And Halal
To make meat kosher or halal – according to Jewish and Muslim customs – an animal has to be killed by swiftly cutting its neck arteries and veins using a razor-sharp knife.
Under the bill, which still requires approval by the Dutch Senate to become law, religious groups would be allowed to get an exception from the ban if they can scientifically prove their slaughter methods are less painful to animals than preliminary stunning.
Two leading Jewish groups in Europe – the European Jewish Congress (EJC) and the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) – have announced they will seek to block the ban.
The EJC said it will take legal action to argue that the “discriminatory law” violates freedom of religion. The CER has appealed to the Dutch Senate to reject the bill.
“The practical effects of this bill mean that Jews are no longer welcome in the Netherlands. This has not happened for 60 years,” CER President Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt told Dutch media.
Some Jewish community leaders in the Netherlands likened the ban to Nazi Germany’s closure of kosher abattoirs during World War II.
Similarly, many Dutch Muslims have condemned the bill as an attack on their religious customs.
The parliament’s initial vote for the ban comes only days after a court in Amsterdam acquitted far-right politician Geert Wilders on charges of inciting hate and discrimination against Muslims.
Wilders is known for his statements attacking Islam and portraying Muslim immigrants as a threat to Dutch culture.
“Many Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands believe that the ban on the ritual slaughter of animals targets Muslims, and in fact it reflects the rising anti-Muslim sentiments here,” says Touraj Atabaki, an Iranian-Dutch professor at the University of Amsterdam.
“The target is probably the Muslim community, whose number has been on a constant rise in European countries in recent years," Atabaki says. "They have maintained their Islamic values, including dress codes. And they usually keep their distance from the rest of society and live inside their so-called colonies.
"It bothers far-right politicians, who try to increasingly pressurize Islamic groups and Islamic societies, as we've recently seen in France and Austria.”
'It's Only About Animal Welfare'
Those behind the bill are adamant that their campaign has no other agenda or intention than protecting the welfare of animals.
Marianne Thieme, a Dutch lawmaker and leader of the Party of the Animals, says her party has been trying to win approval for the bill since 2008.
“In our country, animal welfare is such a big issue that we think freedom of religion ends where human or animal suffering begins,” Thieme told RFE/RL. “If freedom of religion causes harm to anybody, human, or animal, then freedom of religion must be restricted.”
According to Thieme, apart from Muslim and Jewish specialty butchers, “nobody else” in the Netherlands slaughter animals without stunning them first.
Thieme says animal welfare issues “are being taken seriously by more and more people.”
Polls indicate the proposed ban enjoys majority public support in the country.
The religious slaughter of livestock has so far been banned in Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Turkey is the first predominantly Muslim country where such a ban is being discussed in political circles.