Two traditions clashed in the Dutch parliament on Wednesday evening: religious tolerance versus animal rights. The one rooted in centuries of Dutch history, the other a new development that seems to have rapidly become an element of 21st-century Dutch identity.
The cause of the conflict is a proposed ban on the un-anaesthetised slaughter of animals prescribed by Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. Christian Democrat MP and veterinarian Henk Jan Ormel, defending religious tolerance, argued against the proposal on the basis of Dutch values.
Mr Ormel spoke forcefully at the parliamentary debate, which continued until the small hours of the morning. Emotions are running high on this issue, which has prompted an unusual partnership between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Both groups are minorities in Dutch society, both feel under attack and both are supported by the three Christian parties in the Dutch parliament.
Ritual slaughter bans
Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland currently ban ritual slaughter
A 1988 EU directive calls for stunning before slaughter, with exception for ritual slaughter.
European parliament voted in May 2009 to maintain the exception.
Current Dutch law allowing ritual slaughter dates from 1919. Many European countries banned ritual slaughter as part of the wave of anti-Semitism which swept Europe between 1892 and 1938.
On the other side, the animal rights movement has gained increasing political clout since the Animal Rights Party gained two seats in parliament back in 2006. They combine political savvy with the energy and determination of activists thoroughly convinced of their point of view.
Esther Ouwehand, MP for the Animal Rights Party, is a colleague of the MP who put forward the new ban, Marianne Thieme. Ms Ouwehand’s voice nearly cracked as she described how she had been treated in the last few months.
The Animal Rights Party proposal to ban un-anaesthetised ritual slaughter would make Jewish kosher and Muslim halal slaughter illegal. The issue has divided the Dutch parliament, and even created rifts within a number of Dutch political parties.
The argument hinges on how much pain an animal suffers during slaughter. The Animal Rights Party is convinced that ritual slaughter causes significantly more pain than stunned slaughter; a conviction backed up by a broad body of scientific study.
But some scientists agree with the Jewish and Muslim communities that ritual slaughter, if carried out correctly, is no worse than conventional slaughter.
Agree to disagree?
A compromise has now been put forward which may carry the day: the senior governing party, the Liberals, along with three opposition parties have proposed an amendment which supports the ban but allows exceptions on religious grounds. That exception is conditional on firm evidence that ritual slaughter does not lead to more suffering. Opponents of the ban would have five years to prove that ritual slaughter protects animal welfare, and the European Food and Safety Association must agree.
One of the advocates of the compromise formula is Democrat 66 MP Stientje van Veldhoven.
“We don’t want to rule out the possibility that methods of slaughtering animals without pre-stunning may exist that are just as animal-friendly as conventional methods.”
The person behind the attempt to ban ritual slaughter is Marianne Thieme, leader of the Animal Rights Party. She says she can live with the compromise proposal – but thinks it's redundant.
“You should always be open for new and better insights. The Animal Rights Party is. But at the moment there is consensus about the fact that un-anaesthetized slaughter causes unnecessary suffering for the animals.”
Jewish and Muslim organisations are not happy with the compromise. They say it does not protect the right to ritual slaughter as such, but puts the future of kosher and halal slaughter in the hands of scientists.
Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker warned that the ban proposed by the Animal Rights Party could result in “serious tensions” with the Dutch constitution. He promised parliament that he would study the proposed amendment to see if it could ease these tensions.
Parliament will vote on the proposal next Tuesday. It will then be seen whether the clash between the two Dutch traditions of religious tolerance and animal welfare can be resolved by another Dutch tradition: compromise.
Read Dheera Sujan's blog on this here