Brussels and Wallonia, Belgium – In his Brussels office, animal rights activist Michel Vandenbosch opens a large book he wrote on Global Action in the Interest of Animals, or GAIA, First Belgian organization for the defense of animal rights.
Vandenbosch, its chairman, points to photos of a 2014 rally in the Belgian capital, attended by thousands of people calling for a nationwide ban on slaughtering animals such as cattle, sheep and goats without stunning them in the prior.
âWhen you cut an animal’s throat, without feeling dizzy, it still feels pain,â Vandenbosch said.
GAIA has produced a video showing animals contorting after a knife cuts blood vessels in the neck.
“If you take scientific evidence very seriously, then these kinds of habits should change.”
On September 1, Vandenbosch and his fellow ban supporters were victorious when the second such law came into force in Belgium.
It first entered into force in Flanders – the mainly Dutch-speaking northern region – in January. From now on, the law must be respected in the southern region, mainly French-speaking, called Wallonia. Flanders and Wallonia are the two largest regions in Belgium.
We think we are part of the Belgian people, we feel Belgian, and that sort of thing shows us that we are not accepted by the Belgian community.
Back in 2017, The Walloon parliament voted almost unanimously in favor of the ban – only three members abstained.
Only Brussels, Belgium’s third largest region, has not imposed the ban.
Belgium has three animal welfare ministers for each of its regions – Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia.
Some claim the bans are discriminatory, but Vandenbosch rejects by presenting them as a target for Muslims or Jews.
âThis does not only apply to members of religious communities,â he said. “This applies to every period of Belgian citizen, whatever their religious convictions.”
He explains that his organization rallied to the cause around 1995, when the Belgian far right began to push for a ban on religious slaughter.
Activists like him feared that the far right had tainted the issue with Islamophobia.
âIt would have meant a taboo on the whole issue,â he said, so GAIA focused it on animal welfare.
But many Muslims and Jews in Belgium say they are outraged because, according to their religious laws, animals must be in perfect health before slaughter.
For them, the stunning options – rendering animals unconscious – mean injuring an animal before slaughter, which is prohibited.
They say cutting their throats causes the least pain in animals.
A a number of Muslim and Jewish groups have filed a complaint with the Belgian Constitutional Court against Flemish law. The judgment would also affect the new Walloon law.
The Constitutional Court of Belgium has asked the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg for a “preliminary question” – a preliminary question, to help it decide whether the ban should change, whether it can be maintained or whether it should be overturned.
The European Court should answer between this autumn and the beginning of the new year, then the decision returns to the Belgian jurisdiction.
The Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations is one of the the groups that filed the petition.
Its president, Yohan Benizri, declares when politicians make decisions about religious laws, they trample on separation between Church and State.
The bans undermine religious freedom, he adds, and are undemocratic.
âPoliticians are not there to define what is allowed and prohibited under religious law,â Benizri said. âWhen minorities say it really affects us, I think people should listen. “
I think circumcision, for example, is another issue where you can see this conflict between the principle of child protection on the one hand and respect for religious freedom on the other.
The European Union has made stunning compulsory since 1979, but member stMembers can make exemptions based on religion.
Other EU countries that have adopted slaughter bans are Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Slovenia. Only Belgium’s ban led to a challenge to the EU court.
âThis is one of the first cases of conflict between what I would call modernity on the one hand and religious freedom on the other â, declared Caroline sagesser of the Center for Socio-Political Research and Information, or CRISP, in Brussels.
She wrote a research paper in 2018 on slaughter bans in Belgium.
“Now the European Union will have to take a stand and on a question on which the European Union does not like to decide, âadded Sagesser. âIn general, the Union has always left the Member States to decide for themselves all that concerns the relations between the Church and the public financing of the State, etc. “
In the meantime, businesses like El Halal, located in Charleroi, a city in Wallonia, had to comply as of September 1.
They will likely supply meat imported from countries neighboring the EU, said employee Halim Aissani.
âIt’s not about the Belgian label,â Aissani said. “It is a question of quality and it is certain that other countries have quality meat.”
Instead, the problem, he says, is how many Muslims now feel in their own country.
“We think we are part of the Belgian people, we feel Belgian, and this stuff shows us that we are not accepted by the Belgian community,” said Aissani.
Other consumers of halal meat are worried about rising prices.
In El Halal, where Aissani works, restaurateur Abdelhak Ouelbani waited for his order of salami and ground beef.
A warm red light shone above, coming from a neon sign with the store’s name on it.
âIt will become much more expensive for us,â Ouelbani said. âIt will be difficult to come and buy halal meat. I don’t understand why it was allowed before and now it’s not. Years go by and things change, and it’s always the people who pay.
Back in Brussels, Mustapha Chairi, co-founder and president of the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en Belgique, declared that in general, Muslims can find common ground with GAIA, but not on these prohibitions, which he says ârestrict the fundamental rights of citizens â.
Still, Chairi sees a silver lining: Perhaps the ban will lead Muslims to eat less meat, he added.
âAnd with that kind of approach, you influence action on climate change,â Chairi said, referring to how meat production contributes to global warming.
Experts predict that in the years to come, similar conflicts will arise.
Sagesser, researcher at CRISP, described conflicts âbetween religious norms and certain principles which have become important in modern society.
“I think circumcision, for example, is another issue where you can see this conflict between the principle of child protection on the one hand and respect for religious freedom on the other.”