Taking a knife to liberty and tolerance
A Dutch proposal to ban kosher and halal slaughter represents another assault on religious freedom in Europe.
In June this year, the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a law requiring animals to be stunned before they are slaughtered. This would effectively ban the production of meat according to kosher rules (for Jews) and halal rules (for Muslims). The proposal, which will shortly be debated in the upper house, fits in with a recent intolerant trend in Europe against religious minorities.
The Dutch law was proposed by the small Party for the Animals but it received cross-party support. The ostensible basis for the law is concern for animal welfare. However, while mainstream meat production in Europe has for a long time demanded pre-slaughter stunning, exemptions have been available for those slaughtering according to religious rituals. Halal and kosher generally demand that an animal is killed by a single, clean knife-cut to the throat while still conscious. So the proposed law is, in effect, a specific assault on the legality of this practice.
The Netherlands would not be the first country in Europe to ban ritual slaughter. Two members of the EU, Sweden and Luxembourg, have already done so, along with non-EU members Norway and Switzerland. Jews and Muslims across Europe have reacted angrily to the possibility of such a ban. The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, said last week: ‘For those of us that remember a time when half of Europe wasn’t free and suffered under the yoke of the Soviet Union, there are literally no words to describe the irony of a liberal European country enacting a law against freedom of religion.’ Other Jewish leaders have noted that the last time kosher slaughter was banned in the Netherlands was during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War – an embarrassing parallel for modern-day Dutch politicians.
After the June vote, Imam Mahmoud el Shershaby of the al-Tawheed mosque in Amsterdam told Reuters: ‘There was no reason for passing this law… This is a political decision. Who has the authority to determine whether the way of killing animals is good or not?’
This vote against Muslim and Jewish rituals follows hot on the heels of other signs of religious intolerance in Europe. There has been a ban on wearing Muslim garments like the burqa and niqab in public in France, and a similar proposal may soon become law in Belgium. In 2009, Swiss voters backed a referendum proposal to ban minarets, the tall spires on mosques.
While such restrictions are often imposed in the name of modern, liberal values, they are their very opposites. A free and open society should be able to tolerate a diversity of beliefs and practices, even when they are at odds with the views of the majority. In his classic work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), the philosopher John Locke put the case for freedom of religious practice: ‘As the magistrate has no power to impose by his laws the use of any rites and ceremonies in any Church, so neither has he any power to forbid the use of such rites and ceremonies as are already received, approved, and practised by any Church; because, if he did so, he would destroy the Church itself: the end of whose institution is only to worship God with freedom after its own manner.’
Locke specifically illustrates the point in relation to the slaughter of animals. If there were some wider political reason for banning slaughter, that would be one thing: ‘If peradventure such were the state of things that the interest of the commonwealth required all slaughter of beasts should be forborne for some while, in order to the increasing of the stock of cattle that had been destroyed by some extraordinary murrain, who sees not that the magistrate, in such a case, may forbid all his subjects to kill any calves for any use whatsoever? Only it is to be observed that, in this case, the law is not made about a religious, but a political matter; nor is the sacrifice, but the slaughter of calves, thereby prohibited.’ But to ban slaughter on religious grounds is wrong. It is up to each individual, according to the rules of his own religion, to decide whether the manner of an animal’s slaughter ‘be well-pleasing to God or no’.
Such tolerance does not mean that we can’t be critical of the rules and rituals of others, but it does mean that these are matters for open debate not legal restriction. As it happens, even the case made by animal-welfare supporters – that kosher and halal slaughtering are unusually cruel compared to stunning – doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Animals (and humans) pass out very quickly when their brains are deprived of blood. This freaky college wrestling video makes the point well: the star of the clip lapses into unconsciousness in moments when placed in a choke hold.
Anyone who is genuinely liberal must also be genuinely tolerant. Tolerance is one of the foundations of liberty and democracy. That should mean an end to the current fetish for bans and restrictions in a wide variety of circumstances, but particularly so when such laws strike directly at someone’s most deeply held beliefs. Those who profess to believe in freedom while promoting a ban-happy, intolerant culture are simply cutting their own throats.
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