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The future of Islamophobia: the liberal, the Jew, the animal

The ritual slaughter of animals has become the last of many areas of contention that are changing the shape of our public domains. The way in which Islamophobia is becoming a part of our public ‘common sense’ has complex knock-on effects, not least for our Jewish minorities.

The Dutch Party for the Animals has proposed a new law banning the ritual slaughter of animals without anesthetic. Though a miniscule newcomer to the Dutch political scene (and the first such party in the world), the party now has gained the support of a majority in Parliament: the Liberals, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, the Labor Party, the Socialists, the left-liberal Democrats of ’66, and the Green-Left Party. Opposed are the Christian Democrats, the orthodox Protestants, and the left-of-center Protestants. In other words, everyone has gotten involved. The critical (formal) divide is between secularist and religious parties.

Initially, it was widely assumed this would be a proposal especially problematic for Muslims, in part because Geert Wilders has publicized his desire to ban Islamic slaughter. But Muslim organizations and spokesmen have been largely willing to go along with the new law. The big surprise turned out to be the tremendous resistance offered by the Jewish community. For Jewish critics, the requirement that an animal not be damaged (‘torn’) when it is slaughtered according to the requirements of shechita is non-negotiable.

So suddenly there has been a curious reversal in the fortune of Muslims and Jews in Holland. For Muslim organizations, this controversy has become an opportunity to demonstrate their reasonable willingness to adapt Islamic practice to the findings of modern science and the norms of Dutch society. For Jews, it has been to discover that they have been demoted from Holocaust survivors to a religious minority like any other. Suddenly it matters more that they are ‘religious’ than that they are ‘Jews.’ Neither the international pleas personally addressed to Dutch political leaders by the American Simon Wiesenthal Center, nor public statements from European rabbis, nor calls to remember the proud Dutch tradition of tolerance towards the Jewish community have made any difference. That is to say, today, so far as the secularist Dutch majority is concerned, once religious Jews disagree with them they are little different from Muslims: trapped in stubborn irrationality and medieval practices. Liberal secularism is on its way to becoming the new group-think.

Daring to speak the truth

Islamophobia has played a vital role in enabling this shift. Following the murders of Pim Fortuyn and 9/11, Dutch distress about immigration morphed into distress about Muslims: the immigrant debate was ‘Islamized.’ A Moroccan-Dutch politician tells the story of being an ‘allochtoon’ (foreigner/immigrant) when she left the country to study abroad and discovering that in popular parlance she had become a ‘Muslim’ when she returned. A new coterie of politicians, publicists, academics, and (pseudo-)experts sustained a raging wave of stereotyping, criticism and aggressive questioning of Muslims’ place in Dutch society. This was regularly framed as ‘finally daring to speak the truth.’ (For similar trends throughout Europe and beyond, see ‘The success of Islamaphobia’ .)

Until that point there had been a strong taboo against any public expression that might be understood as racist and the one politician who had tried stubbornly to challenge this had been both politically marginalized and convicted in court of racist statements (which, unlike in the English-speaking world, are illegal in Holland). The switch from this situation to the post 9/11 moral hysteria about Muslims was acute and took place almost overnight, drawing on a deep reserve of previously privatized prejudice. Central to this was the widespread conviction that religion was ‘not of this time’ by virtue of being dogmatic, oppressive, resistant to change, incapable of listening to reason and a preeminent source of violence in human history. Reinforcing this is a deeply-seated  conviction of western moral superiority. In what is essentially a circular argument, the wealth and democracy of western societies is taken as sufficient evidence of this superiority, even as this superiority is assumed to be what produced such wealth and democracy.

At the most fundamental level, the argument to Muslims is this: take on our morality and you will become wealthy and democratic as we are; fail to do so and you will remain poor and criminal like so much of the world outside Europe. Given your religion and culture, we must pressure you, because you will not change on your own. This is the nature of religion. Only when you have given us proof of your transformation, will we accept you in our midst. We cannot tell you what the right proof is, but we will know it when we see it. All signs of resistance will be held against you.

The affective intensity and substantive superficiality of this view have everything to do with the specifics of Dutch history. Within living memory, Holland has gone from being one of the most religious to one of the most secularized countries in Europe. This entailed not only the rapid emptying of Dutch churches in the 1960s and 70s, but sometimes intense private conflicts within families and social networks and (semi-) public ones within political parties, organizations, institutions, and the media. In one go – at least as far as public memory is concerned – the Netherlands went from Calvinism to sexual liberation, individualism, egalitarianism, democracy, consumerism, scientific truth-finding, and contemporary forms of pleasurable leisure. In this account, the only place for religion is as an essentially medieval practice that has been left behind in the course of the nation’s progress into full modernity. For many Dutch this is not just an abstract narrative, but one deeply resonant with vivid personal memories. The result has been, however, to either stereotype or simply erase the deep and continuing significance of religion to modern Dutch history, society and sensibilities.

Once Muslims became a public issue, the Dutch were just as willing to caricature Islamic religiosity as to caricature the role of religion in their own history. The key difference was that Dutch Christianity has by now been almost completely pacified – see gay marriage, euthanasia and the legalization of prostitution – while the Dutch are deeply insecure about whether or not Islam and immigrants can be pacified in a similar way. In the last ten years, floods of wishful thinking have been projected onto Muslims, driven by a perplexed and angry disappointment that Muslims do not appear to want to follow the Dutch example in liberating themselves from what many Dutch perceive as a dogmatic and repressive tradition. Why do they not want to become like us? Why do they not repudiate their repressive traditions and identities? Is it perhaps because they are Muslim? Within the framework of the national narrative of liberation from religion, to conceive of Islam and Muslims as a complex tradition that today is engaged in a dynamic global process of renewal, transformation and deep self-exploration is all but impossible. For this, the deeply-embedded conviction of western moral superiority and religion’s backwardness are too strong.

Instead, the new Dutch secularists – those in politics, the media and the universities yearning to complete the secularization of Dutch society that was begun in the 1960s – now see their chance. For many years, the largest political party in the Netherlands have been the Christian Democrats, a party established in 1980 through the fusion of two Protestant parties and one Catholic party. While taking the Bible as a source of inspiration, party members do not reference or quote in public from it. In other words, it is a Christian party that has privatized its Christianity in the interests of political success.

Right-of-center, the party has presented itself as middle of the road, tending neither to the extremes of (Social) Left or (Liberal) Right. This worked very well until the most recent elections, when suddenly and shockingly the party was halved in size. For the first time in history, the Liberals became the largest party, while the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders (a former Liberal) took third place, overtaking the reigning Christian Democrats. At the same time, the liberal-Left Democrats of ’66 saw its size increase, even as in recent years the Green-Left Party has been adopting more liberal standpoints and moving closer to D66.

This ‘liberalization’ of Dutch politics coincides with a tremendous desire, expressed by many from Left to Right, to experience a unified culture of shared norms and values. A number of politicians and pundits attempt to achieve this by simply stating that it exists. For the Liberals this has meant that in the last decade they have produced the politicians calling most fiercely for the illiberal pressurising of Muslims in the name of secular, liberal values. Now, the expanding success of the Liberals means that all religious minorities are fair game. The hardening of secularist positions in the public debate of the last years with regard especially to Muslims now becomes a more comprehensive socio-political transformation, both in Holland and throughoutwestern Europe.  As we watch, Islamophobia gives birth to secularist hegemony.

57.5% for

This may seem like an overstatement, but consider the vapid hypocrisy of this new law. Its intention is to save animals one to two possible minutes of suffering when they die. The basis for the claim that ritual slaughter causes more suffering than established industry practices is said to be scientific. Yet it appears to rest largely on one scientific study that is privileged over others which might contradict it (a very unscientific way to proceed). The basic political argument is that religious freedom is all very nice and good, but should not enable religious minorities to diverge from general laws that are applicable to all if this causes suffering. Meanwhile, scientific studies are ignored that show that industrial practices of anaesthetizing animals by shooting a pin into their brains regularly fail to work effectively. Also ignored is the suffering caused to animals in order to create such delicacies as paté foie gras (through force-feeding), cheap meat (immobility, over-medication, cram-feeding etc.), and the hours of sometimes terrifying transport required to get animals to the slaughter houses where they will hopefully, but not necessarily, be successfully anaesthetized before they are slaughtered. As a Dutch columnist, Rosanne Hertzberger, has argued in a quite brilliant piece, this shows the extent to which the Dutch are willing to prevent animal suffering only as long as it affects others but does not interfere with their right to gustatory pleasure and cheap meat.

At the same time, there has been a striking marginalization of the anti-Semitic history of suppressing Jewish slaughter practices. This is brushed aside as irrelevant, since, so it is said, now the concern so obviously is with the well-being of animals, based on scientific evidence. What this obscures is how old such arguments are. Quite strikingly, the very first issue that the Swiss voted on when they introduced referenda in 1893 was whether or not to prohibit Jewish slaughter. The arguments here too concerned the preeminent importance of animal welfare. By a curious twist of fate, the outcome on that vote was precisely the same as the outcome last year in the referendum on banning Islamic minarets: 57.5% for.

Nor, in closing, should we forget that one of the key policy positions of Wilders’ Freedom Party was that there should be established a corps of trained ‘animal police’ to track down animal abuse and rescue its victims. At the time, this was derided by others as a call for guinea pig cops. But the move was prescient in two ways: it anticipated the sudden Dutch concern with helping animals (at the very moment that the desire to spend money on helping other people, domestically and internationally, is falling fast) and it established the link between the stereotyping of Muslims and the morality of animal protection. As one Freedom Party politician put it: the desire of the party is to save both Muslim women and animals from needless cruelty.

Before you know it, they will be introducing a new line of cuddly toy ‘Muslim women,’ for all those who also love animals. Meanwhile, with liberal friends such as these, freedom – and religious minorities – hardly need enemies.

 

Addendum: After the events described here, there was a strong outcry from (Jewish and Muslim) constituents of the Labor Party who strongly disagreed with the Party leaders' decision to abolish ritual slaughter. The result, after various developments, is that the Labor Party and other parties have now proposed that ritual slaughter be prohibited, BUT that exceptions can be granted to Jewish and Muslim groups who can show that their form of ritual slaughter does not cause more suffering than standard slaughter. Such exceptions will be valid for 5 years and then will need to be renewed. What forms of ritual slaughter will be given such recognition is currently unclear. . . So essentially, after being shocked by how much the issue mattered to their constituents, and perhaps also by the international outcry, the national politicians have sought to compromise in a face-saving way. A typically Dutch development: note the resolution of an ideological conflict of principles through the invention of a "pragmatic" procedure able to accommodate multiple interests...

About the author

Markha Valenta lives in Amsterdam and works at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies, with a focus on north America, western Europe, and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.

Her openDemocracy column is Inter Alia.


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