They may kill giraffes in Denmark, but they anesthetize them first. And as of February 24, the same goes for any animal killed for meat in the kingdom. Thanks to a new law that went into effect this week and that seeks to reduce the pain that livestock suffer on their way to becoming dinner, all animals slaughtered in Denmark must be stunned before being killed. The government says the legislation is founded on a concern for animal welfare. But Muslim and Jewish groups, who note that it effectively bans the production of kosher and halal meat on Danish soil, wonder if there are darker motives behind it.
The European Union, like the United States, requires that cows, sheep, and pigs be stunned before slaughter, but makes an exception for ritual slaughter. That was Denmark’s policy as well until last summer, when the agriculture minister at the time, Karen Haekerrup, proposed that the exception be lifted. The measure was approved by parliament on February 18, and went into effect six days later. A few days earlier, the current agriculture minister, Dan Jørgensen, explained the decision to Danish television. “There has to be a balance between religious issues and animal rights,” Jørgensen said. “We are not forbidding ritual slaughter, but it should be conducted by (first) stunning the animal.”
Yet most—though not all—Jews and Muslims believe that their traditions prohibit pre-stunning. Under dhabiha and shechita, (as ritual slaughter under the dietary laws of halal and kashrut, respectively, is known), Islam and Judaism require animals intended for human consumption to be killed with a single slash through the carotid artery in the neck. The practice is intended in part to assure that animals die with as little pain as possible (that is why, for example, both religions specify that the blade used must be sharp and perfectly smooth).
In fact, no animals have actually been ritually slaughtered in Denmark in a decade, and Jews and Muslims in Denmark are accustomed to getting their kosher and halal meat from abroad. That fact, say some, makes the legislation all the more questionable. “From the Jewish point of view, there are no practical effects to this law,” says Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Community of Denmark. “So you have to wonder why regulate something that is not happening?”
Benyones Essabar, chairman of the organization Danish Halal, has questions too. He notes that the proposal emerged in the wake of a controversy last summer provoked by the discovery that a Copenhagen hospital was, out of deference to Muslims, serving halal meat to all its patients regardless of their religion. And he points out that Danish Muslims have been actively trying in the past few years to find both farmers and a slaughterhouse that could supply the community locally. “While we are working on it,” he says, “The government has closed the only door.” Like Schwarz, he points out that in other critical areas of animal welfare such as hunting, pig production (Denmark is one of the biggest producers of pork in Europe) and mink farming (ditto), the government has taken no action.
The Danish government is at pains to point out that the new legislation does not, in fact, ban halal and kashrut, since those products are still available for purchase within the kingdom. But given the questions about timing of targets, it’s little wonder that Jews and Muslims outside of Denmark have found an explanation for the ruling that has nothing to do with animal welfare: prejudice. Eli Ben Dahan, Israel’s deputy minister of Religious Affairs responded to the measure by saying “European anti-Semitism reveals its true face,” and called on the Danish ambassador to Israel to prevent the law’s implementation. Noting that Denmark was also home to the Mohammed cartoon scandal, the Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News reports that many in the Middle East are calling for a boycott of Danish products.
It doesn’t help that Sweden and Norway, the two nations that also require pre-stunning, passed their legislation in the 1930s—just like Germany and Italy did. (The Allies eventually reversed the measure in the latter two countries.)
Yet neither Schwarz nor Essabar, whose organization collected nearly 20,000 signatures protesting the new law, believe that anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiments are the true motive for the reform. Rather, they point to a rejection of religion in general. “Denmark is a very secular country,” says Schwarz, “and arguing anything from a religious point of view is counterproductive. So the government knows this is an easy way to show they’re protecting animal welfare. It’s like [they’re giving out] free beer.”
Free beer or not, an ever-increasing number of incidents in Denmark and throughout Europe—from hate crimes to proposed legislation limiting the number of Muslim immigrants to uproars over whether kindergartens should be required to serve pork — have contributed to the sense that neither religious group is “really” Danish. “We are Danes born in Denmark,” says Essabar. “But every time something like this happens, we are marginalized more.”
The marginalization probably isn’t over either. For all the controversy provoked by the pre-stunning law, a bigger storm is gathering over another religious practice shared by Muslims and Jews: circumcision. In December, the Danish Medical Association called on the government to ensure that boys were allowed to decide for themselves whether to have the operation and the Jyllands-Posten newspaper called for an outright ban on the practice of circumcising at birth. Another major newspaper, BT, conducted a survey that found that 87% of Danes supported such a ban.
Even Essabar, who believes that Danes are genuinely tolerant, is beginning to wonder about the impression his country is creating. “We slaughtered a giraffe in a zoo. Our military shoots pigs for practice. So do we really care so much about animal welfare? Something is not as it should be.”