Update: see below
The Dutch banned ritual slaughtering by Muslims and Jews. In a proposal heavily condemned by Muslim and Jewish organizations the Party of the Animals wanted a complete ban on dhabiha and shechita in cases where the animals were not stunned before the killing; the ritual slaughtering by Muslims and Jews. The ban will mostly effect orthodox Jews since all of the shechita slaughtering involves animals fully conscious while in the case of dhabiba this is the case in only 25%-40%. In order to get this bill passed through the lower house of parliament (a second vote is necessary in the senate) a so-called typical Dutch compromise was established: Jewish and Muslim communities have a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by dhabiba and shechita (and not stunning them) do not experience more pain than those animals that are stunned before killing.
Food is much more than..just food. And even when it is just food it is of basic and existential importance to people. Many societies have food restrictions and so do many religions. Besides the Jewish and Islamic kosher and halal restrictions we have Hindu traditions pertaining to food pollution of different castes and within the Catholic tradition fish on Fridays is still (even in secular circles) a well-known phenomenon. Such food restrictions have several functions. First of all they are boundary markers; food culture practices mark who is ingroup and who is outgroup. Food practices are also reminders (and often daily reminders) to people’s moral responsibilities and obligations towards what is sacred. At the same time food is more than a reminder; it involves bodily practices and devotion as well, for example during prayer before dinner and during fasting. They also have a symbolic function in the sense that they explain, express and teach people about certain doctrines and dogmas; for example during fasting, the Eucharist and in vegetarianism. Food practices are also related to social structures of religious and ethnic groups; for example the role of the rabbi in Judaism with regard to kosher food but also differences between men and women in the production of food. And food has a very strong social function; producing and consuming food can reaffirm or even change (think about a first date with your partner) relationships with other people and there are elaborate etiquettes about how to eat. It can bring people together who may not share anything else or even have opposed understandings of the world as well as interests.
As one of my great examples in anthropology, Mary Douglas, has taught us, people distinghuish between food that is polluted (‘matter of out place’) and that which is not polluted. For example we usually do not like flies in our soup or worms in our salad. With regard to religious restrictions for food, (particular) animals are ‘out of place’. Food that is haram or not kosher is like a fly in a soup for some people. Purity and impurity should not be mixed and people should not eat impure or hybrid food; not only the fly in the soup is impure but the fly makes the whole soup impure. These food restrictions come from old (not in the sense of not modern) of what was good (even healthy) to eat and what not. At the same rituals can transform animals that are taboo into food that is allowed. It is not always clear whether these restrictions are implemented top down or bottom up; in the sense that food restrictions can also be religious legitimation of what was already common practice. Whatever is the case food ties people in contemporary society in practices, discourses and memories with their ancestors and with traditions that are larger than their individual lives in the here and now. What it comes down to is that ritual and food pertains to deeply held values, beliefs, practices and memories. For some people for example the idea of having to eat dogs, worms or insects is enough to be repulsed and shocked; the idea of having to eat other food that is taboo can invoke the same bodily reactions and emotions.
I think more or less the came can be said about food restrictions from the point of view of vegetarians and animal rights activists. This makes ‘food’ in the recent Dutch debates about ritual slaughtering a field where people battle over political, religious, economic, social and animal welfare issues. The Netherlands is now the second country to ban ritual slaughtering in recent years. Other countries such as Switzerland and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries also have bans which date from before World War II and probably not totally unrelated to anti-semitic tendencies of that time. So why now in the Netherlands?
I do not think it is that speculative to say that the Animal Party has profitted from three major developments in Dutch society. First of all the animosity on ritual slaughtering is clearly related to the animosity about Islam. When the proposal for the bill was mentioned for the first time, the debate was about Islam and not about Jews.
Second the proposal and also the current result signals a change in the relation between the religious and the secular. With the current compromise the burden of proof is not on the state but on religous communities that ritual slaughtering without stunning is does not lead to animals experiencing greater pain than those that are stunned before they are killed. Given the evidence on that issue right now and because they have to show that something ‘is not’ this will be an almost impossible endeavour. In the voting in parliament the support for the Jewish and Muslim communities came largely from the three Christian parties who voted unanimously against the law. For some this is the victory of modernity and secular society over ancient or even backward religion, for the other it is attacking the freedom of religion in society and a few have even referred back to World War II when the shechita was forbidden by the Nazis. In this process both camps are created and subsequently heavily targeted. Certainly not all Muslims and Jews prefer the old way of slaughtering; some of them have spoken out, many have not and some have chosen sides with the community leaders opposing the ban. In the debate however it appears that all Muslims and Jews are against the new law. The other side is often targeted as supporters of the Freedom Party of Wilders (who struggled with this issue since the result is not only that Muslims will be targeted but also Jews and they want to uphold an image as defenders of the Jewish community and Israel; which in their rhetoric is almost the same). The idea that there may be people who are not anti-religion in general or anti-islam in particular but support the ban because they think animal welfare is more important that religious convictions, is lost somehow in the debates.
A third development may be signalling a trend that has already been set in motion when the Party for the Animals was elected in parliament several years ago. Although in many respects environmentalists are not hold high regard by the more rightist political parties and their constuencies, the Party for the Animals is regarded as a decent, somewhat atypical, party that deserves respect for its quest on animal rights. There seems to be a strong place for animal rights in Dutch society as long as it appears decent, not too left wing and outside the circles of the established parties. They are too small (two seats of out 150) to have actual power (but they are not aiming at being part of a government) but with the right timing they can gain momentum and accomplish things that would otherwise have been impossible. Whereas in the past religious groups had relatively much autonomy, and partly the case of ritual slaughtering is a remnant of that system, the Party for the Animals has now succeeded in putting animal rights first and making the regulations more state-centred.
The debate over ritual slaughtering is not over yet. Given the compromise we can have the same debate next year over the question if ritual slaughtering is good for animals (which to some people would be nonsense anyway) and also the bill has still to pass the senate. Both the supporters of the ban and certainly its opponents will continue their campaigns which will probably revolve around the three developments I have mentioned here. Until then we have some time to catch up with reading about the importance of food:
- The anthropology of food and eating by Mintz and Du Bois in Ann. Rev. of Anthropology (2002) gives a good overview of the debates and publications in anthropology
- Regulating halal and kosher foods: Different arrangements between state, industry and religious actors by Tetty Havinga in Erasmus Law Review (2010) comparing the Netherlands with US on the regulation of halal food and kosher food.
- The vegetarian anthropologist by David Sutton in Anthropology Today (1997) on what it means to be an anthropologist and a vegetarian and what it means in terms of masculinity.
- The Food and Culture Bibliography of the University of Texas
In a marathon meeting the Dutch senate debated the proposal on banning ritual slaughter. The conservative liberals already had withdrawn their support and last night also the social democrats rejected the proposal although their fellow party members at first supported it. (The Dutch system has two houses of debate. The senate is always the last one to debate and only has the right to approve or disapprove.) This means the proposal has been rejected.