Al-Maa’idah 5:3 (Qur’an) says:

Forbidden for you are carrion, and blood, and flesh of swine, and that which has been slaughtered while proclaiming the name of any other than God, and one killed by strangling, and one killed with blunt weapons, and one which died by falling, and that which was gored by the horns of some animal, and one eaten by a wild beast, except those whom you slaughter; and that which is slaughtered at the altar and that which is distributed by the throwing of arrows [for an omen]; this is an act of sin.

This is a description of dhabihah, the method of animal slaughter to comply with halal (the term for prescribed permissible practices — including food and other things — in Islamic life). The modern interpretation of the important points, at least according to Wikipedia, is:

“This method of slaughtering animals consists of a swift, deep incision with a sharp (non-serated) knife on the neck, cutting the jugular veins and carotid arteries of both sides but leaving the spinal cord intact. It must be done with respect and compassion; avoiding as much as possible any animal pain or discomfort. Care must be taken that the nervous system is not damaged, as this may cause the animal to die before exsanguination has taken place. While blood is draining, the animal is not handled until it has died. If any other method is used its meat will not be halal.”

With this as a guide we can reach at least two conclusions: first, that many of the brutal treatments revealed by the ABC’s Four Corners were not halal, indeed they were haraam (forbidden); and second, modern abattoir stunning appears to comply with Islamic tradition (and it seems also shechita in Jewish kosher tradition).

Islamic practice is by no means uniform throughout the world but Sholahudin al-Ayubi, the secretary of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the national clerical organisation, agrees with this interpretation. The Malaysians, however, do not agree, or at least according to the International Halal Integrity Alliance, a Malaysian-hosted NGO (sponsored by the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry) set up to standardise and certify halal market practice. Pending Tuesday’s decision by the Dutch parliament to ban ritual slaughter, the Malaysians stopped all imports of Dutch halal meats (worth a modest €13 million annually).

Let us put aside what appears to be a significant play for a big slice of the “global halal industry worth an estimated $2.1 trillion“. Though the relevance to Australia is that there are few Muslim countries, including Malaysia or Indonesia, able to fill this market, hence Malaysia’s collaborations with China (but in Hunan province not China’s Muslim province of Xinjiang which, likewise, cannot support large scale cattle raising). The Malaysian rejection of the Dutch is on the basis that “animals are stunned or anaesthetised before being killed, which is not allowed in ritual slaughter”.

So, it seems this interpretation is based on disused Western practice. As I wrote several weeks ago:  “Earlier versions of stunners used a bolt that penetrated the animal’s skull and were very effective in rendering the animal brain dead. Today, in response to contamination of blood with brain in the era of BSE (mad cow disease) in Europe, a non-penetrating stunner is used in which the bolt induces temporary unconsciousness.”

It is a stretch to call this concussion of the animal by captive-bolt stunners to be contravening the admonition to avoid animals “killed with blunt weapons”, or to consider this to be anaesthetic. It is unconvincing dogma of the type all religious bureaucracies devise over the centuries for their own purposes.

As an atheist and scientist, my inclination is to agree with Dick Gross, who wrote that many religious practices developed centuries or millennia after their founding are today simply silly. Further, many such practices or beliefs have changed with modern knowledge. With Christianity the obvious ones are final acceptance of Gallileo and Darwin, or the Vatican’s increasingly tortuous position on condoms with respect to disease prevention. In the Jewish diaspora the use of modern stunning is accepted as shechita in the US, as it is in Muslim countries such as Turkey and in parts of Indonesia.

And Guy Rundle is surely inarguably correct when he wrote last week that we must place humans above animals on any scale of concern or action. Anyone who has lived in the UK notices that the Brits appear to lavish more concern and certainly more charity donations on animal welfare than child welfare. One can go all psycho-analytical on this subject — from 18th century workhouses filled with children to the rich shuffling their brats off to boarding schools as soon as they can walk, or indeed nannies and wet nurses for infants of the rich — but there does seem to be some kind of British legacy in the Australian mentality. I agree with Rundle too that there is some kind of deep linkage in many dark Australian souls between uncharitable rejection of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and the incongruity of easy condemnation of the live cattle trade.

Does this mean we should have no concern for animal cruelty? Of course not. But there was something slightly obscene about a majority of Australians — bogans and latte sippers united — reaction to the clear brutality in some Indonesian slaughterhouses. With the carelessness typical of Australians when it is a matter a million miles from their own privileged lives, they will venture an absolutist “solution” to simply close the whole trade down, not only injuring relations with the largest Islamic nation in the world (also the 4th largest nation in the world) and our closest neighbour (and where about 1.7 million of those same bogans and latte sippers go for their cheap holidays though in the non-Islamic part, Bali where no doubt they will continue to happily consume their beef rendang) but most obviously not solving the problem at all. It will continue, just not with “Aussie” cattle, quite possibly with Chinese/Malaysian cattle.

But when there is the teensiest possibility of impacting on our own bogan lifestyle, it is not on. A few cents on the cost of air-conditioning our McMansions or running our SUVs and the great big carbon tax is toxic and a plot to destroy our great Aussie lifestyle — so throw the planet overboard. A few more cents to help integrate asylum seekers (1% of our immigration intake) into our immigrant nation and those same bogans, every one a recent immigrant themselves, and we erupt with a vicious callousness that is indeed reminiscent of the UK Animal Rights Militia who have tried to murder humans to “save” animals. Or death threats against climate scientists.

There is a rational solution to the cattle trade brutality but assuredly it is not to try to sweep it under the carpet so we don’t have to let it disturb our lifestyle obsessions — especially as we hypocritically continue to eat battery-farmed chickens, eggs and pork. We could actually make an impact (very carefully) on Indonesian practices that seem unnecessarily brutal — to us and many Indonesians, not to mention Islamic practice.

But we need to step outside our miserable narrow selfish obsessions for a millisecond. The world is not all about us and our sensitivities.

Peter Fray

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