Dutch compromise on ritual slaughter

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A new covenant aims to allow Jews and Muslims to continue to perform ritual slaughter of animals while answering the broadly supported call to prevent animal suffering.

After years of heated argument and increased polarization, the parties sat down in front of invited journalists to sign a carefully agreed covenant. The Jewish and Muslim representatives shook hands and, relieved, signed their names to the document.

In this case, Jews and Muslims were on the same side. The covenant they signed, along with Deputy Minister of Agriculture Henk Bleker, is a compromise that will allow Jews and Muslims in the Netherlands to continue the practice of ritual slaughter.

Strictly observant Muslims and Jews believe they can only eat meat from animals which have been slaughtered according to strict rules. For instance, the animals cannot be stunned prior to the slaughter, and they must be killed by having their neck cut with a knife. Defenders of animal rights believe animals slaughtered in this way suffer unduly.

Earlier this year, the lower house of the parliament passed by a wide majority a law introduced by the Animal Rights Party (PvdD) that would have banned ritual slaughter in the Netherlands outright. Passage of the law was seen as a milestone in the burgeoning animal rights movement. But this week, the Senate was set to reject the proposed law.

That a majority in the Senate are against the ban was met with great relief in the Muslim and Jewish communities. But it did not solve the issue. Since the law had passed the lower house by such a wide margin, the Senate’s imminent rejection is seen as obstructionist, an uncommon interference by a body of the government which is not directly elected. It would have thwarted the public will. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture promised to find a compromise which would satisfy the objections of the Senate (that the ban infringed on the right to religious freedom) while meeting the will of the lower house to limit the suffering of animals.

New measures 
The covenant is seen as having bridged that gap. The measures stipulated by the covenant include the following: a veterinarian must be present during the slaughter (this is already the case for Jewish slaughterhouses); the animal must die within 40 seconds, otherwise the veterinarian must step in and kill the animal; animals must be inspected before slaughter and can be rejected on the basis of overall weight and size of neck. The new protocol will be overseen by a committee of scientists.

Not pleased 
So the Dutch tradition of compromise appears to have won the day. Except that the very party which started the whole discussion about ritual slaughter is not satisfied. Animal Rights Party leader Marianne Thieme says the new agreement looks very much like a proposed amendment to her law. The amendment called for many of the same measures called for by the covenant. But back when the law to ban ritual slaughter passed the lower house by 116 votes to 30 votes, the compromise amendment failed by a similar margin.

Ms Thieme says nothing has changed since last year. A compromise unacceptable to the lower house of parliament, the ultimate representative of the popular will, should remain unacceptable today.

In standing her ground, Ms Thieme is the perfect representation of the new political culture in the Netherlands. Compromise is out, ideology is in. Politics have become polarized, and the tradition of compromise is seen to have failed. Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party have become one of the largest parties in the country on the basis of this argument rejecting compromise. Indeed, Mr Wilders’ rejection of compromise on new budget cuts has led to early elections.

But in the case of ritual slaughter, in rejecting compromise Ms Thieme looks to find herself on the losing end. The debate on the ban pitted defenders of animal rights against defenders of religious freedom. This divide split many parties right down the middle, resulting in fierce internal debate within many parties. Animal rights has become broadly accepted in Dutch society, but religious freedom is still seen as one of the core values of this country. It is difficult to choose between the two.

Off the hook 
Now that a compromise has been reached, alleviating parties from the need to make that fundamental choice, many parties will be reluctant to re-open the whole debate. The new covenant governing ritual slaughter is likely so supersede Ms Thieme’s proposed ban. Another victory for pragmatic compromise.

The struggle to protect their rights as religious minorities has also brought the Jewish and the Muslim community closer together. Both have been pleased with the cooperation. Assuming the ritual slaughter compromise holds, religious communities of all stripes would be encouraged to join together in protecting their rights as minorities in a broadly secular society.