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Reading Between the Lines: How the Debate on Ritual Slaughter Exposed Dutch Racism

Journalist Gerry van de List writes in his weekly political column for the Elsevier:

"Especially for Dutch elderly people a walk through old neighborhoods can be depressing. All those Muslim butchers have an alienating effect, as if you are in Istanbul without boarding a plane. This is the result of improvident immigration policy. It is only natural that commercial companies respond to the sharp growth in the number of Muslims. Albert Heijn has now, for instance, halal meat on the shelves, food that meets Islamic standards"

This column illustrates that the debate on ritual slaughter of animals in the Netherlands was about much more than animal welfare. It is an example of a larger contemporary debate in the Netherlands—the “failed” integration of minorities in Dutch society. It demonstrates the different challenges and questions that arise when politicians discuss minority or religious rights in a secular democracy, without critically assessing xenophobic rhetoric. As a result, issues concerning minorities are often extensively debated in the political and public debate without addressing the underlying tones of discrimination and racism.

The ban on ritual slaughter is a clear example of such a public debate. The question of whether or not to ban the ritual slaughter of animals without prior anaesthetization, as carried out by Jews and Muslims around the world, was a lively debate in The Netherlands in the summer of 2011. The bill to prohibit slaughter without stunning passed with 80% of the House of Representatives behind it, 116 of the 150 members of parliament voting in favor. What is interesting about this debate is the large media attention it gained. Newspapers, talk shows, opinion websites and columns were all reporting on ritual slaughter. While political parties shifted their traditional positions within this debate, the discussions inside the parties were as intense as those outside the party. Shockingly, xenophobia, in particular Islamophobia, was not being addressed or recognized. Instead, the debate was framed as tension between animal rights and the freedom of religion. The language that was used within this debate is, however, not neutral and corresponds with Islamophobic and anti-religious rhetoric in the Netherlands.

The National Monitor on racism and extremism has noted more frequent and more aggressive language towards Muslims in recent years. Islamophobia seems to have replaced racist comments as an accepted form of critique on different ethnic groups in the Netherlands. By relating to progressive values as an emancipation of women and gay rights, verbal attacks on Muslims are being justified. Another way to circumvent being accused of racism is the government’s focus on the Islamic religion and culture instead of the people. So even though you would not hear a prominent public figure say ‘Muslims are aggressive people by nature’ you might hear something like, ‘the Islam is intrinsically violent’. Not only is an Islamophobic undertone widespread in public figures’ language, but it is also reflected tangibly in the high number of attacks on mosques. Ineke van der Valk, who did research on this phenomenon from 2005 to 2010, found that in The Netherlands mosques reported 117 incidents compared to 42 in the US during the same period. Frank Bovenkerk explains this difference by the more proactive approach of US politicians in connecting with the Muslim population. Dutch politicians on the contrast have not faced Islamophobia and because of that have fueled the resistance against a multicultural society.

Critics of the debate on ritual slaughter state that it is highly disproportionate relative to its insignificant role in the Dutch meat industry. According to the Royal Society for Veterinary Medicine, in 2010, 2 million animals were slaughtered without stunning, about 2,500 per year within Jewish communities. In 2011, it was calculated that about 20% of Muslim Halal meat was produced from animals without stunning before slaughter. The disparity between how many animals are actually slaughtered by halal methods and those subject to regular slaughter is less than 0.5% of 500 million. Nevertheless, ritual slaughter is treated as a national issue, while other issues regarding animal welfare, such as the conditions of animals in the meat industry, are viewed as special interest. According to political scientist Markha Valenta, this demonstrates that “it is the religious nature of ritual slaughter that enables, the issue of animal welfare to suddenly feel much more ‘immediate’ and of particular, personal concern to many Dutch, while the suffering of animals more generally does not.” Thus, when the Dutch party for animal rights began campaigning to ban ritual slaughter where stunning and anesthetics were not incorporated, the large Jewish population and smaller Muslim population that slaughtered animals without stunning or anesthetics was reasonably dismayed. They worried that ritual slaughter would be banned as it has already been done recently in places like New Zealand, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland (JTA).

Ritual Slaughter in the Netherlands

The history of ritual slaughter in the Netherlands goes back to the 18th century. The presence of a kosher butcher was a condition for a Jewish community to settle in a village and a common part of the Dutch landscape. The food inspection law of 1919, which restricted un-anesthetized slaughter, even made an exception for private and commercial kosher practices. This right was infringed upon during the German occupation. The measure was presented as an animal rights issue. Even though the Nazi laws were abolished after the liberation, the pre-war law on slaughter did become more stringent under pressure of animal activist groups. The new law required a clear demand for kosher meat in the region of a kosher butcher. This resulted in many of the old kosher butchers going bankrupt. In the post-war polarized society most political parties allowed the Jews their practices on the basis of religious freedom as long as they were restricted to their community. The resistance against ritual slaughter did continue from the side of animal rights groups and the orthodox reformed Christian party (SGP). The SGP believed theNetherlands was a purely protestant country and should not tolerate other cultural pillars.

The Moroccan and Turkish Muslim workers who arrived in the Netherlands during the sixties did not have the same right to ritual slaughter as the Jews did. This did not prevent individuals from halal slaughter at home. To prevent people from private slaughter, the practice received the same status as kosher slaughter in 1977. During these years the rhetoric of the debate on ritual slaughter changed from the perspective of religious freedom to acceptance of different cultures in a multicultural society. Halal slaughter became one of the flagships of the Dutch tolerant and diverse society. The attacks on ritual slaughter during this time came from the direction of right wing populist parties who profiled on intolerance towards migrant groups and the multicultural society. In their view, ritual slaughter was an inhumane act that did not belong in modern Dutch culture. Pim Fortuyn, an influential populist politician who was killed by an animal activist, popularized the opposition against ritual slaughter at the start of the 21st century. The Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders later on adopted this viewpoint. The PVV was one of the supporting parties of the government during the debate in 2011. On the other side of the political spectrum, the newly founded Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren) was also pushing for a ban on ritual slaughter on the grounds of animal rights. Most of the left wing parties (SP, D66 and Groenlinks) reacted to this by supporting the ban. Bart Wallen argues that this can be explained by the shift in perspective from ritual slaughter as a cultural expression to a religious practice. This might explain why during the debate in 2011, the opposition mostly came from Christian parties. Instead of an attack on a cultural group, these parties perceived it as a secular attack on religious freedom.

How It All Started—The Sedating Campaign of the Party for the Animals

The recent political debate on ritual slaughter differs from the previous debates. The main difference is connected to the entrance of the new Party for the Animals in the Dutch House of Representatives in 2006. Their entry in parliament is unique because the Netherlands is the first country in the world with a party that primarily focuses on bettering animal welfare and environmental policy. As a consequence, the main opponents and the political arena of the debate changed drastically. In the eighties, for instance, the issue was primarily debated at the Ministry of Agriculture amongst animal rights activist and the Jewish community. In 2011, however, ritual slaughter became a topic of debate at the local, provincial and national level. The main opponents of ritual slaughter shifted from animal rights groups to an elected political party in parliament.

Reading Between the Lines: How the Debate on Ritual Slaughter Exposed Dutch Racism

Marianne Thieme, the leader of the Party for the Animals, tried for several years to put the issue of ritual slaughter back on the agenda, but could not get any support from other political parties. The Party for Animals has been extremely effective in generating media attention, intense public emotion and widespread involvement in the issue of ritual slaughter. According to former mayor of Amsterdam and strong opponent of the bill, Ed van Thijn, this sudden change can not only be explained by the effectiveness of their media campaign. There are two important reasons for this change. Firstly, Thieme profited from the opportunistic politics of political parties in the Netherlands, “In Dutch politics there is a general tendency to accommodate rival parties, in order to take their issue away. Especially, in the case of a new political party.” Secondly, the Dutch society has changed significantly over the last thirty years. Sentiments of xenophobia are increasing in Dutch society and being fueled by the notion that the ‘multi- cultural society’ has failed. Just before the national elections in 2006, Geert Wilders, was rising as a political star. After leaving the Liberal party, he was actively using anti-Islam rhetoric to translate his position as an independent representative into a much larger movement. In the national elections he entered parliament with the new Freedom Party for the first time, together with the Party for Animals. This context has definitely influenced the way in which the Party for Animals has framed the issue of ritual slaughter in parliament and in the media. Even though Thieme stated multiple times that she distances herself from xenophobia and cultural conflict, similarities with Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam discourse are undeniable.

The Party for Animals began their campaign in 2006 to eliminate the sale of halal meat in Albert Heijn grocery stores. One week after Albert Heijn’s announcement to sell halal meet, Marianne Thieme wrote a public letter in which she stated that a “halal revolution” was taking place in Dutch slaughterhouses without consumers being aware of it. Moreover, she states that slaughter without anesthetic has come one step closer to becoming the standard procedure and those with a business interest in ritual slaughter, “can ritually slaughter as much as their heart desires.” This means that even predominantly Dutch regions use Islamic practices, “Calf slaughterhouses in the ‘Bible Belt’ on the Veluwe, where neither owners nor employees normally want to have anything to do with Islamic influences, now take on imams without any problem whatsoever, in order to dedicate their veal to Allah.” The fear that an Islamic practice is taking over without people knowing about it overlaps completely with Wilders’ rhetoric on the “invisible Islamisation” of the Netherlands.

In Thieme’s public letter she further argues that halal slaughter is an excrescence of Muslim tradition that, “creates a distorted image of what Islam as a worldview has to say about the rights of animals.” In the public debate on the Islam it is often treated as an homogeneous and static entity. Not only is this false when it comes to religion in general, but also in the case of ritual slaughter. There have been and continue to be varying forms of ritual slaughter, with and without the stunning of animals before the slitting of their throats. Moreover, since various international Muslim organizations have stated that multiple forms of stunning are in fact acceptable, roughly 80% of halal slaughter in the Netherlands makes use of stunning.

Throughout the parliamentary debate, Thieme continuously framed the issue as a contrast between harmful religion practices opposite to rational scientific knowledge. She argued that ritual slaughter “is literally not of this time” and that the scientific evidence is unquestionable. Rabbi Lody van de Kamp, who also actively opposed the prohibition of ritual slaughter, says that religion in general is put under pressure in today’s society, “In the eighties religion had an important role in society and was allowed to be practiced in public spaces, today there is less and less space for religion.” There is an intolerant climate against religion in general and skepticism against religious issues. This is also emphasized in the film on ritual slaughter the Party for the Animals showed in parliament. The video combined undercover film clips of dying animals with statement by scientist. The images are graphic and disturbing, while the rational commentary is very clean. The Halal certification company Halal Correct has, nevertheless, issued a press statement criticizing the video that was screened. They state that many shots in the video do not originate from The Netherlands and that the shown practices are incidents that do not happen on a regular base in slaughterhouses.

The campaign to ban ritual slaughter was very effective, as it was prominent in various media. Even though opponents of ritual slaughter did not dominate the opinion pages and background stories, the images of slaughtered animals had a great impact. Bloody scenes illustrated the framing of the debate. Slaughter, whether it is regular or ritual, is an activity that involves the flowing of blood. During interviews and discussion programs these images were shown in the background influencing the publics’ opinion. Also on websites of various media articles would be accompanied with pictures of bloody knives, hanging carcasses and slaughterers walking through the blood in their boots. According to Rabbi Lody van de Kamp the biggest damage of this debate is the negative image that is created about halal and kosher meat. Consequently, this image stimulates a negative perception of the communities that perform ritual slaughter. They were described amongst many other things, as animal abusers, executioners, and medieval barbarians.

Parliamentary Debate on Ban

In parliament the proposal to ban ritual slaughter was supported by a majority in parliament (D66, GroenLinks, SP, VVD, PvdD and the majority of the PvdA and PVV). Within the left political parties (Groenlinks, SP and PvdA) the support gave rise to many debates. Ufuk Kaya, Groenlinks member of the municipality council of Amsterdam, explained how his party struggled with the issue, “Within GroenLinks there is a big group with animal activist background, but also a big group that supports minorities.” The clash between core party values of animal rights and cultural diversity were also present in the other left parties. Prominent party members spoke out against the ban. The parliament representatives did decide to vote in favor of the proposal when an amendment was introduced to allow unsedated slaughter when it was as humane as sedated slaughter. Illustrative for their stance on this issue is the statement of Groenlinks member Van den Berge during the parliamentary debate: “Groenlinks is not against ritual slaughter. Every religious group is allowed to practice their beliefs. But when ritual slaughter is practiced it must meet our agreed upon standards. Groenlinks believes sedation of animals is one of these conditions.” The paradox of on the one hand promoting cultural differences, but on the other hand demanding a specific measure that limits a religious practice should be noted.

The Christian parties (CDA, SGP and Christenunie) did not support the ban, as they believe a ban on un- sedated ritual slaughter is an infringement upon freedom of religion. The SGP did seem to make a distinction between kosher and halal ritual slaughter. They fully oppose a ban on kosher ritual slaughter, whereas their position on halal seems to be more ambiguous. Together the parties tried to postpone on the grounds of an ongoing court case. Dutch-Israeli Church Society and the Jewish Community Amsterdam had filed a case against the Wageningen University on their research on the effects of unsedated ritual slaughter. In the end they were not able to gather a majority to support their motion, and the ban on un-sedated ritual slaughter was passed.

The Response of the Jewish and Muslim Community

Before a bill is officially adopted, it has to be approved by the senate. In practice, this procedure gave the affected communities several months to lobby against the ban on ritual slaughter. The Dutch Jewish population is about 50,000, the Muslim community is comparatively large, reaching about 1 million people. Even though the discourse of the ban focused primarily on halal meat, leading Jewish community members responded forcibly to the propositions of the ban as it affected them as well. According to professor of history, Dinke Hondius, there was panic in both the Jewish and Muslim communities when this law became a real option, but the Jewish community was better able to lobby against the bill. Moreover, the Jewish community had blatant support from Jews in neighboring countries and larger umbrella organizations. Senior rabbis from all across Europe came together in a conference at Schipol to show solidarity in expressing strong opposition to the proposed bans and defend ritual slaughter. The European Jewish Congress President, Moshe Kantor, stated that this “blatantly discriminatory” proposal is basically showing that “...Jews are no longer welcome in the Netherlands.”

Nevertheless, the national politicians were not impressed by the Jewish delegation. On the contrary, retired mayor Ed van Thijn said it might have harmed their lobby efforts, “Dutch politicians were not amused by their visit and their intervention seemed to be an overkill.” Ultimately, it was a small group of influential people within the Jewish community, amongst them was Ed van Thijn, who were able to convince the senators that this bill was not feasible and an infringement on human rights. Their lobby efforts were successful, because the senate decided to block the ban on ritual slaughter.

The Muslim community was not as visible in the media as the Jewish community. According to Jacob van der Blom, board member of the Islamic umbrella organization in the Netherlands (CMO), the Jewish community has much more experience in mobilizing themselves and uniting in solidarity nationally and internationally to defend their rights. The Muslim community is very diverse and fragmented. Much division within the Muslim community arises from varied mindsets on how progressive one can or should be while still maintaining solid alignment with Islam. Therefore, it is hard to organize the community politically and find consensus. According to Mustafa Hilali, board member of the Jewish-Moroccan Network Amsterdam, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community.’ He argued, “It does not exist because you have different subgroups and not one big Muslim community that they are all represented by.” Nevertheless, Abdulfatteh Ali-Salah, director of Halal Correct, states that many Muslims felt humiliated by this ban, “the debate made Muslims in the Netherlands feel Dutch society is more interested in animal welfare than fair treatment of its Muslim citizens.”

Since the Jewish and Muslim communities were both affected by the debate on ritual slaughter, it would be expected that they worked together to oppose the ban on ritual slaughter. Even though there were moments of inevitable solidarity, there seems to be no explicit conference or series of meetings between Jewish and Muslim groups in the Netherlands during the time this ban was proposed. Whether it is a lack of trust, different strategies or organizational disparity is unclear. It is, however, evident that their lobby efforts were different. According to Jacob van der Blom, the Islamic organizations learned from the highly mobilized and politicized lobby efforts of the Jewish community to devise against the ban.

What does Banning Religious practices say about the Dutch Political and Social Climate?

The debate on ritual slaughter shows that racist sentiments are being used to strengthen the arguments against ritual slaughter. According to Professor Dinke Hondius there is increasing pressure in Dutch society to succumb to the “general Dutch culture.” The historically tolerant Dutch seem to be subtly, but forcefully herding minority groups, such as Jews and Muslims, to dismiss their “medieval” practices and become more relatable to the stereotypically Dutch population. Within the debate on ritual slaughter this was also clearly articulated by Thieme when she said:

"I really do understand that it affects people deeply, if for more than 3000 years you have been of the opinion that you are doing the very best that can be done for animals, your surroundings, your fellow man and yourself, and you are then confronted with scientific reports that make clear that you’ve actually acted wrongly, then that’s terrible to find out."

Her ostensible sympathy masks her paternalistic approach in addressing this issue. Paternalistic racism is masked in good intentions and is as Dinke Hondius explains, very common in the Netherlands. It can have an aggressive undertone and is condescending, as in “Let me explain to you how we do things.” We also see signs of this within the debate on Zwarte Piet and the discourse on banning the headscarf. Each issue is a potential opportunity to let people know that keeping Dutch tradition was more valuable. Or that Dutch progressiveness was a form of liberation from previously oppressive ways. The debate on the ban on ritual slaughter was full of political parties and leaders who felt they knew better, for the animals and for people’s sake. Inevitably, one can observe xenophobic and racist tendencies as one group overruled the religious and individual freedoms of another for the sake of assimilation. Yet, as former mayor Ed Van Thijn comments, politicians are aware enough of these tendencies to decide not to be aware, because if you fight xenophobia you lose votes. Thus, hinting at how political opportunism amongst parties can cause minority groups’ rights to be overlooked and neglected.

Leaving the implicit racism in public debates unchallenged would allow politicians to use racism as a political tool. Unless the government is held accountable by tenacious lobbying parties of the groups discriminated against, these xenophobic tendencies will emerge into explicit racism in the discourse for future political propositions. Multiple sources hinted the next challenge of the Jewish and Islamic community will most likely be centered around circumcision. Hopefully these groups will be able to work together to defend their rights as minority groups in Dutch society.




Online Articles 

Associated Press. "Dutch Consider Banning Religious Animal Slaughter." FOXNews. N.p., 8 Apr. 2011. 

Biedermann, Ferry. "Jews and Muslims Unite to Condemn Netherlands Ritual Slaughter Ban.” The National. N.p., 30 June 2011. 

De Volkskrant. "European Rabbis Defend Ritual Slaughter." Presseurop. N.p., 13 Apr. 2011. 

Fildes, Catherine. "The True Meaning of Halal." The Guardian. N.p., 22 Mar. 2010. 

JTA. "Dutch Ban on Kosher Slaughter Sidestepped by Agreement." HAARETZ. N.p., 6 June 

Khaleeli, Homa. "Halal Meat: The Truth." The Guardian. N.p., 20 Sept. 2010. 

Soeters, Karen. "'De Politieke Verhoudingen Rond Het Ritueel Slachten Zijn Merkwaardig'" 
Volskrant. N.p., 12 Dec. 2011. 

"Tweede Kamer Stemt Voor Verbod Rituele Slacht." NU. N.p., 28 June 2011. 

Den Dool, Pim Van. "Kamer Stemt Voor Verbod Op Onverdoofd Ritueel Slachten." Nrc.nl. N.p., 
28 June 2011. 

"Veel Dieren Geslacht Op Offerfeest." Spits. N.p., 25 Oct. 2012. 

Valenta, Markha (2012) ‘Pluralist Democracy or Scientistic Monocracy?’ Debating ritual 
slaughter’ Erasmus Law Review, Vol 5, I 1 

Van der List, Gerry, ‘De halalisering van Holland’ in Elsevier, October 25, 2006 

Van Lier, Heleen. "5 Questions about Ritual Slaughter, Why, and How Does It Hurt More?" 
Volkstrant.nl. N.p., 13 Apr. 2011 

Wallet, Bart. "Hoe Voor- En Tegenstanders Van De Rituele Slacht Van Rol  Wisselden." Trouw DeVerdieping. N.p., 14 May 2011.

Waterfield, Bruno. "Dutch Government to Vote on Banning Ritual Slaughter of Animals." The Telegraph. N.p., 28 June 2011.


Dienke Hondius, Historian and Board Member of Humanity In Action

Ed Van Thijn, Former mayor of Amsterdam and Co-founder of Humanity In Action

Mostafa Hilal, Major in the Royal Netherlands Army

Ufuk Kaya, Senior Fellow of Humanity In Action and member of the municipality council of Amsterdam

Jacob van der Blom, board member of the Islamic umbrella organisation in the Netherlands (CMO)


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Netherlands Netherlands 2013


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