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Ritual Slaughter Ban Supposedly Puts Animal Rights Before Religion

Islamic and Jewish critics argue that Denmark's ban has less to do with animal welfare than with politically motivated discrimination.
March 12, 2014, 4:20pm
Photo by Memi Beltrame

The recent adoption in Denmark of a law banning the slaughter of animals without first stunning them is being condemned by the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities, who believe the ban has less to do with animal welfare than with politically motivated discrimination.

Denmark’s Agriculture and Food Minister Dan Jørgensen introduced and signed the regulation last month, remarking that “animal rights come before religion.”

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Community leaders maintain that the law is discriminatory because animals are prohibited from being stunned under the traditional Islamic method of dhabiha and the Jewish method of shechita, which dictate the ritual slaughtering of animals and qualify the meat as halal or kosher.

“The underlying principle of kosher slaughter is to kill the animal in the most humane manner possible,” Andrew Srulevitch, the director of European affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, told VICE News.

Srulevitch said that shechita, which involves a single cut across the throat with a razor-sharp blade to minimize pain, is no less humane than slaughter with common stunning methods. These include electrical shock, the use of gas, and a bolt-shot to the animal’s forehead.

Critics have pointed to the abuse of animals in the country's factory farms to highlight the ban’s hypocrisy.

Kamran Iqbal, the deputy chairman of Danish Halal, a nonprofit halal monitoring organization, told VICE News that the ban is strictly political, and that such laws serve only to marginalize minorities.

“It’s important to understand that according to Islam, Muslims are obliged to treat animals with the most respect, not only when they are being slaughtered, but always,” he explained.

But these opinions are not representative of all Denmark’s Jewish and Muslim population. Danish Islamic leaders actually issued a religious decree years ago that said animals stunned before slaughter could be considered halal in Denmark.

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Finn Schwarz, the president of Copenhagen’s Jewish Community Center, told the Jerusalem Post that he felt the Agriculture and Food Ministry’s adoption of the law without parliament’s approval was problematic, but he didn’t believe the decision was motivated by anti-Semitism. Schwarz noted that relations between the Jewish community and the government are usually very good.

Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told VICE News that certain slaughter practices are inaccurately labeled halal.

“Animals who end up in a halal slaughterhouse are roughly handled, which is against Islamic law,” she said. “Most religions, certainly including Islam, teach kindness to animals. The only diet that is open to all religions and truly respects animal rights is a vegan one.”

Benyones Essabar, chairman of Danish Halal, told VICE News that Islamic ritual slaughter practices are humane and effective.

“Islam teaches us how to deal with animals right before slaughter, by supplying it with water and ensuring a calm environment,” he said. Essabar noted that animals don’t see other animals being slaughtered and don’t even see the knife, which is re-sharpened before every slaughter.

Denmark’s ban only affects the domestic slaughter of animals, and doesn’t regulate the importation of religiously slaughtered meat into the country, which is how the majority of Danish Jews and Muslims currently get their meat.

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In fact, Morten Olsen, the Agriculture and Food Ministry’s press secretary, told VICE News that there hasn’t been a halal or kosher slaughter in Denmark in over a decade. So why the ban?

The ministry’s point about the lack of halal and kosher slaughtering in Denmark seems particularly suspicious to religious leaders who believe the ban is culturally discriminatory.

Both Srulevitch and Essabar told VICE News that they fear there’s more to the regulation than people think.

“While the Danish Jewish community can still import kosher meat and does not currently conduct kosher slaughter, there is justifiable concern that a ban on kosher slaughter in Denmark will add momentum to the movement to ban kosher slaughter throughout the European Union,” Srulevitch told VICE News. “While kosher meat in Denmark has not changed, the movement to ban kosher slaughter throughout the European Union has gained momentum.”

The EU requires that animals be stunned before slaughter, but has traditionally made exceptions for religious ritual slaughter.

Opponents of the ban were outraged by the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision last month to euthanize a healthy two-year-old giraffe named Marius, who was then skinned and butchered in front of the public.

“We have not called [the law] anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic, but I understand if many people feel it is,” Essabar said. “When you see the Capital Zoo slaughter a [giraffe] in front of kids, and feeding it to lions, and at the same time speaking about animal welfare, that will put a question mark on the reason for this ban.”

The Danish ban has enlivened a global debate about the welfare of animals raised for food production, even prompting some to call for the enacting of similar policies around the world. Other nations that have banned ritual animal slaughter include Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Poland.

“Muslims are a part of the Danish society, and the only thing we want is to have the same rights as the rest of society,” Essabar said. “We do not ask for special rights, but only for the basic human rights… the right to practice our religion.”

Photo via Flickr