Changing kosher and halal slaughtering methods—the moral case

It isn’t often that Jews and Muslims find themselves on the same side, but they have joined forces in The Netherlands as each opposes a bill that would require changes in kosher and halal slaughtering methods.

Both Muslims and Jews see the law as an infringement on religious freedom and a blow to religious tolerance in a country long famous for its broadmindedness. Jews see it as anti-Semitism, Muslims as another example of anti-Islamic bias.

“I can speak for the Dutch Jewish Community and I think for the wider Jewish world, that this law raises grave concerns about infringements on religious freedom,” Ruben Vis, secretary-general of the Dutch Jewish umbrella organization NIK. The director of the certification body for halal meat in Holland said that the debate made Muslims feel that Dutch society cares more for animal welfare than fair treatment of Muslim citizens.

The law is likely to pass this week. While promoted by a tiny animal rights party in the Dutch Parliament (the only such party elected to office anywhere) and by ascendant xenophobic right-wing parties, most Netherlanders support the proposed legislation.

The European Union requires that animals be stunned before slaughter but allows religious exemptions. The Dutch law would remove the religious exemption.

Religious opponents say that Jewish and Muslim dietary laws require that animals remain awake when slaughtered. The swift cutting of the necks with sharp knives, it is said, deprives animals of blood to the brain, thereby rendering them pain-free when they die. This, it is claimed, makes ritual slaughter as humane as slaughterhouse killing.

Does a society have a right to impose its moral standards upon traditional religious practices? I think it does, if it can make a good ethical case. Many governments ban animal sacrifices, even though some religions claim that it is central to their practice. And polygamy is forbidden throughout the Western world.

When a practice violates the society’s norms, it is incumbent for the minority to make the case that its rituals and rules aren’t ethically harmful. In the case of halal and kosher slaughtering, it is increasingly difficult for religions to make that case. When society cared little for animal welfare, Jews and Muslims held the moral high ground, as ritual slaughtering methods did cause less pain and suffering than secular methods.

But this is no longer the situation. Animal welfare is now part of the secular calculation as well and halal and kosher slaughtering methods have come under new scrutiny. In response to the new sensibilities, there have been changed within sectors of Islam. New Zealand requires that all animals be stunned before slaughter and has developed methods that have been approved of by halal supervisors. New Zealand routinely ships meat from that country to the Middle East, where it is accepted as halal.

Rules around proper religious slaughter are long-standing but they need not be immutable, any more than other religious practice. Religions have always offered new interpretations of religious requirements.

So while some behind the proposed Dutch law may be motivated by xenophobia and anti-Semitism, it doesn’t mean that the proposed legislation shouldn’t be adopted. New Zealand has shown how stunning, done properly, can conform to religious requirements.

If stunning is more humane than halal and kosher slaughtering as it is now practiced, then Holland is right and has the right to take this step, one that recognizes that animal welfare is an important component of the moral life.

The next step in the process of recognizing animal welfare is to inspect all slaughterhouses to insure that the latest methods in humane killing are implemented everywhere.


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