The Salt
3:58 pm
Wed April 9, 2014

Denmark Kosher and Halal

Originally published on

In a conflict that pits animal welfare against religious rights, Denmark has ruled that all animals must be stunned before being killed, a move that effectively bans ritual slaughter in its purest form according to Muslim and Jewish tradition.

Before you ask...yes, this is the same country that recently made news for killing a giraffe at the zoo and dissecting it in public.

Danes may come across as coldly pragmatic at times, but for biologist and animal welfare activist Peter Mollerup, the slaughtering issue is pretty straightforward.

"Danish legislation tells us that if you want to kill an animal you should do it as quick and painless [as] possible." And, says Mollerup, all the convincing evidence he's seen, suggests that simply can't be done if the animal is conscious when it's killed. For him, even if the difference between life and death is a matter of a few extra seconds, animal welfare must come before religion.

"I think it is much better to help the animal here than to help people that think something," he says. "And I have [deep] respect for those people and their way to think about God, but it must not hurt any living creature."

Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, argue that there is evidence to suggest that, if done correctly, ritual slaughter can be just as humane as conventional slaughter. The Danish Minister for Agriculture has invited local religious leaders to submit that proof, something they say they'll do by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, this rule doesn't change much on a practical level for Denmark's Jews and Muslims. The last Danish slaughterhouse willing to forego pre-stunning shut down in 2004. Since then, Denmark's estimated 8,000 Jews have imported all Kosher meat. And while most Islamic authorities seem to agree that stunning is not ideal, many say that animals stunned before slaughter are still considered Halal as long as the concussion is not the cause of death. According to that interpretation, 99 percent of the poultry slaughtered in Denmark is—and will continue to be—Halal. And while that works for many of Denmark's 230,000 Muslims, those with concerns about how carefully religious tradition is being followed can still opt for imported meat as well.

Denmark is also not the first country to enforce a rule like this: Sweden and Norway have had similar bans on the books for decades. But Denmark's move is the most recent development in a discussion that seems to be growing louder. Dutch lawmakers took up the issue in 2012, and even Britain's top veterinarian is now making headlines by suggesting his country would do well to follow the Danish example.

As Europe grows more secular, says Finn Schwarz with the Jewish Community of Denmark, "religious tradition" is no longer a valid argument for much of anything. In fact, he sees it as a counter-argument.

Benyones Essabar with the group Danish Halal agrees.

"Religion itself in Europe doesn't play the big role...it does in other countries. So every time we speak about something that [has] to do with religion," he says, "it will always be looked at as something from medieval times, and something that doesn't have any scientific place in our modern days."

The possibility that Denmark's rule could spread to other countries, or other traditions, is Essabar's biggest fear.

"Now they've banned the ritual slaughter. The next step they are debating is actually banning the circumcision of boys."

That circumcision debate, simmering for a while now in Denmark and Sweden, has a different ethical spin, pitting religious rights against a child's right to self-determination.

And yet both Schwarz and Essabar are extremely hesitant to use words like "Islamophobia" or "anti-Semitism" when discussing these issues. Essabar frames it as "a lot of people afraid of different things," but Schwarz sees is, primarily, as an easy way for politicians to score points with a mostly-secular public.

"Today we are...living in a very complex world, and our problems in Denmark, like all other countries, are very complex," he says. "What should we do with unemployment? What should we do with the kids that [don't] get an education? But these issues—the circumcision, the slaughtering—it's so easy. And everyone can have their own opinion like [that]."

But maybe there is one bright spot for Denmark's religious minorities in all this. During one of the many recent TV debates featuring this Jew and Muslim on the same side of the table, Schwarz reached out to pat Essabar on the back.

"I totally agree," he said. "It's nice that we can agree on something once in a while."

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