In a conflict that pits animal welfare against religious rights, Denmark has ordered that all food animals must be stunned before being killed. The move effectively bans the ritual slaughter methods prescribed in both Muslim and Jewish tradition.
(Yes, this is the same country that recently made news for killing an "extra male" giraffe at the zoo and dissecting it in public.)
For biologist and animal welfare activist Peter Mollerup, the slaughter 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," says Mollerup. And 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 have [deep] respect for those people and their way to think about God, but it must not hurt any living creature," he says.
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, which they promised to do.
On a practical level, the rule doesn't change much for Denmark's Jews and Muslims. The last Danish slaughterhouse willing to forgo stunning before slaughter shut down in 2004. Since then, Denmark's estimated 8,000 Jews have imported all kosher meat.
And while most Islamic authorities 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 opt for imported meat.
Denmark is not the first country to invoke a stun first rule: 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 in other parts of Europe. 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, president of the Jewish Congregation in Copenhagen, "religious tradition" is no longer a valid argument for much of anything, he says.
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," Essabar says. "The next step they are debating is actually banning the circumcision of boys."
And yet both Schwarz and Essabar hesitate 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 it 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."
But there may be 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," Schwarz said. "It's nice that we can agree on something once in a while."
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. A conflict in Denmark has animal welfare pitted against religious freedoms. The country has decided 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 traditions. While some consider this a minor administrative change, it's having an unsettling effect on Denmark's religious minorities, as Sidsel Overgaard reports.
SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: For Danes like animal welfare activist Peter Mollerup, this is a pretty straightforward issue.
PETER MOLLERUP: The Danish legislation tells us that if you want to kill an animal, you should do it as quick and as painless that is possible.
OVERGAARD: And he says that means an animal should not be conscious when it's killed.
MOLLERUP: I think that it is much better to help the animal here than to help people that think something.
OVERGAARD: In reality, no animals have been killed in Denmark without stunning for the last 10 years. Denmark's roughly 8,000 Jews import all Kosher meat. The issue is a little more complicated for Denmark's 230,000 Muslims. Many Islamic scholars say stunning, while not ideal, is still halal, but some Muslims, like Suma Hamudi(ph), who's come to the Islamic Society of Denmark for the evening prayer, aren't so sure.
SUMA HAMUDI: (Through translator) So now I have decided to buy only from those who import meat so we can be sure it's slaughtered 100 percent correctly.
OVERGAARD: But Hamudi says even for Muslims who are willing to buy Danish meat, the new rules smacks of intolerance.
HAMUDI: (Through translator) We just don't feel we have respect for our choices. It's becoming harder and harder to be a Muslim in Europe in general. You understand? There are limits on what we can and what we can't do.
BENYONES ESSABAR: I think it's mainly - I will not say Islamophobia, but it is a lot of people afraid of different things.
OVERGAARD: Benyones Essabar is with Danish Halal, a group that advocates for stricter adherence to Islamic law in the meat industry.
ESSABAR: The religion itself in Europe doesn't play the big role as it does in other countries. So every time we speak about something that have with religion, it will always be looked at as something from medieval times, and it's something that doesn't have any scientific place in our modern days.
OVERGAARD: Both Jews and Muslims say ritual slaughter is humane. Even so, Britain's top veterinarian recently suggested his country might do well to follow Denmark's lead and the possibility that this policy could spread to other countries or other traditions is Essabar's biggest fear.
ESSABAR: Now they've banned the ritual slaughter. The next step they are debating is actually banning the circumcision of boys.
OVERGAARD: In that ongoing circumcision debate, it's religious rights versus a child's right to self determination. Finn Schwarz heads the Jewish community in Denmark.
FINN SCHWARZ: If you abandon circumcision in Denmark, within very short time, there will be no Jews in Denmark. And we can see on Facebook and all other places people are saying, well then leave.
OVERGAARD: And yet, even though Schwarz accuses Denmark of meddling in the private lives of its religious minorities, he insists this has more to do with politics than anti-Semitism.
SCHWARZ: Today we are in a situation where we are living in a very complex world, but these issues, the circumcision, the slaughtering, it's so easy. And everybody can have their own opinion like here.
OVERGAARD: Perhaps there is one bright spot in all of this for Denmark's Jews and Muslims, captured recently in a single moment on Danish TV. In one of the many debates featuring these two men on the same side of the table, Schwarz reached out to pat Essabar on the back.
SCHWARZ: (Speaking foreign language)
OVERGAARD: I totally agree, he said, and it's nice that we can agree on something once in a while. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.