Brussels and WalloniaBelgium – In his Brussels office, animal rights activist Michel Vandenbosch opens a great book he wrote on Global Action in the Interest of Animals, or GAIA, First animal protection organization in Belgium.
Vandenbosch, its president, shows photos of a 2014 rally in the Belgian capital attended by thousands of people calling for a nationwide ban on the slaughter of animals such as cattle, sheep and goats without stunning them prior.
“When you cut an animal’s throat, without stunning it, it still feels pain,” Vandenbosch said.
GAIA produced a video showing animals writhing after a knife cut blood vessels in their necks.
“If you take the scientific evidence very seriously, then those kinds of habits should change.”
On September 1, Vandenbosch and other ban supporters scored victory when the second such law came into effect in Belgium.
It first came into force in Flanders – the predominantly 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 of Belgium.
We think we are part of the Belgian people, we feel Belgian, and this kind of thing shows us that we are not accepted by the Belgian community.
In 2017, The Walloon parliament voted almost unanimously in favor of the ban – only three MPs abstained.
Only Brussels, the third region of Belgium, did not decree 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 framing them as a target for Muslims or Jews.
“This does not only apply to members of religious communities,” he said. “This applies to every period of Belgian citizenship, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
He says his organization took up the cause around 1995, when Belgium’s far-right began pushing for a ban on religious slaughter.
Activists like him feared that the far right had colored the problem with Islamophobia.
“That would have meant a taboo on the whole issue,” he said, so GAIA focused him 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 they are slaughtered.
For them, stunning options – rendering animals unconscious – means injuring an animal before slaughter, which is prohibited.
They say that cutting the throat causes the least pain for animals.
A many Muslim and Jewish groups filed a petition with the Belgian Constitutional Court against the Flemish law. The judgment would also affect the new Walloon law.
The Belgian Constitutional Court has asked the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg a “prejudicial question” – a preliminary question, to help it decide whether the ban should be changed, if it can be maintained or if it should be canceled.
The European Court should answer between this autumn and the beginning of the year, then the decision is up to the Belgian court to make.
The Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations is one of the the groups that filed the petition.
Its president, Yohan Benizri, tells when politicians make decisions on religious laws, they trample separation between Church and State.
The bans undermine religious freedom, he adds, and are undemocratic.
“Politicians are not there to define what is permitted and not permitted by religious law,” Benizri said. “When 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 mandated stunning since 1979, but the member stThe ATEs can grant exemptions based on religion.
Other EU countries that have adopted felling bans include Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Slovenia. Only Belgium’s ban led to a challenge all the way to an EU court.
“This is one of the first cases of conflict between what I would call modernity on one side and religious freedom on the other,” said caroline sagesser of the Center for Socio-Political Research and Information, or CRISP, in Brussels.
She wrote a research article in 2018 on felling bans in Belgium.
“Now the European Union will have to take a stand and an issue on which the European Union does not like to comment,” added Sagesser. “Generally speaking, the Union has always left the Member States to decide for themselves on everything concerning the relationship between public funding of the Church and the State, etc.”
In the meantime, businesses like El Halal, located in Charleroi, a city in Wallonia, had to comply from September 1.
They will likely supply meat imported from neighboring European countries, says employee Halim Aissani.
“It’s not about the Belgian label,” Aissani said. “It’s a matter of quality and for sure other countries have quality meat.”
Instead, the problem, he says, is how many Muslims now feel in their own country.
“We think we’re part of the Belgian people, we feel Belgian, and that kind of stuff shows us that we’re not accepted by the Belgian community,” Aissani said.
Other halal meat consumers are worried about soaring prices.
At El Halal, where Aissani works, restaurateur Abdelhak Ouelbani was waiting for his order of salami and ground beef.
A warm red light shone above, coming from a neon sign bearing the store’s name.
“It will become much more expensive for us,” Ouelbani said. “It will be difficult to come and buy halal meat. I don’t understand why it was allowed before and now it isn’t. The years go by and things change, and then it’s always the people who pay.
Back in Brussels, Mustapha Chairi, co-founder and president of the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, said that generally Muslims can find common ground with GAIA, but not on these bans, which he says “restrict the fundamental rights of citizens”.
Nevertheless, Chairi sees a positive side: maybe the ban will lead Muslims to eat less meat, he added.
“And with that kind of approach, you influence action on climate change,” Chairi said, referring to how meat production contributes to global warming.
Experts predict that in the coming years similar conflicts will arise.
Sagesser, a researcher at CRISP, described conflicts “between religious norms and certain principles that have become important in modern society.
“I think circumcision, for example, is another issue where you can see this conflict between the child protection principle on the one hand and respect for religious freedom on the other.”