• Animal cruelty then, can serve as a useful smokescreen for negative views about other cultures. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)Source: iStockphoto/Getty Images
Animals are slaughtered both in the name of religion and human consumption. But says, vegan Ruby Hamad, only focusing on the slaughter of animals for cultural purposes is western-centric at best and xenophobic at worst.
Ruby Hamad

30 Sep 2016 - 2:53 PM  UPDATED 30 Sep 2016 - 2:53 PM

The apocalyptic vision of animal blood mingling with flood waters in the streets of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, during the recent Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, once again put Islam’s most important religious holiday under the spotlight.

Some of this criticism has been from dissenting voices within Islam who question the relevance and ethics of mass animal sacrifice in the modern age. Some argue that it violates the Islamic call for compassion, while others point out that since wealth is no longer counted in camels and goats, it would make more sense for today’s  Muslims to sacrifice money as a sign of their faith.

And then there are the non-Muslim perspectives I have seen branding the ritual “archaic" and "barbaric" because animal sacrifices in the name of religion have no place "in this day and age".

This view, which is western-centric at best, can become xenophobic at worst.

First, as someone who doesn’t consume any animal products at all, I am not invested in mounting a justification for this tradition. What I am interested in is deconstructing how, depending on their vantage point, humans can either categorically condemn or enthusiastically support an almost identical action; in this case, the slaughter of animals for human consumption.

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Dhaka’s crimson streets were a confronting reminder of the sheer number of animals that die at the hands of humans across the globe. But, in our western society, the tendency is to regard this and similar cultural traditions such as Nepal’s Hindu Gadhimai festival, as somehow divorced from the wider context of animal consumption.

This view, which is western-centric at best, can become xenophobic at worst.

The western opposition to the Yulin dog meat festival in rural China that grows louder every year is a prime example of how concern for animals can rapidly degenerate into outright bigotry. As graphic footage prompts ever more indignant calls for an end to the festival that “murders” dogs and cats, protests of the festival that call for an end to all dog meat consumption because “dogs are friends not food,” have taken place as far as New York’s Chinatown, as if that particular community has anything to do with a small, rural festival half a world away. But that is the nature of racial stereotyping – facts or empathy rarely get in the way. Some Chinese eat dogs, therefore all Chinese are to blame.

Let’s put it in context. Approximately ten million dogs are slaughtered for human consumption in China – country of 1.3 billion people – each year. This is roughly the same number of cows killed (murdered?) for the same reason in Australia.

Animal cruelty then, can serve as a useful smokescreen for negative views about other cultures. Because dogs are our companions, then anyone who eats them fails to meet our standards of civilised behavior, leading to statements such as this from one of the world’s most famous vegetarians, Morrissey, who said, “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies”.

But that is the nature of racial stereotyping – facts or empathy rarely get in the way. Some Chinese eat dogs, therefore all Chinese are to blame.

This would make more sense if animal cruelty was unknown or at least unusual in our own societies. But given the systematic and widespread abuses of animals in our own factory farms and slaughterhouses, how is it that we get so enraged when others treat animals badly?

First, it speaks to the power of language. The Festival of Sacrifice is easy to condemn because of the word "sacrifice" itself. Although Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a roast turkey or glazed ham, because we don’t use antiquated terms associated with less “civilised” times, it obscures the fact that the end result is exactly the same: an animal is killed and its body eaten.

The language we employ makes it easier condemn others for their traditions even as it provides us with justification for own habits. Terms like “humane slaughter,” “stunning,” “free-range” and “grass-fed beef,” are less about easing the suffering of animals and more about soothing our own anxieties, as demonstrated in this satirical article from The Onion.

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There is, however, one fundamental difference in how many non-western cultures slaughter their animals and how we do it. The former often lay their violence literally out on the street. Animals are slaughtered, dismembered, and cooked in the open, while the unlucky ones who go last cower, all too aware of their fate. This is accepted because they are so accustomed to seeing it, it has become normalised. It may be gruesome but it is at least honest.

Meanwhile we in the polite and civilised west, have learned to quell the inner conflict by keeping it shuttered from view. Our animal slaughter takes place in the dead of night, behind closed doors, where we can either pretend it's not happening or rewrite the narrative so that in our minds –  if not in reality – the animals we eat do not suffer.

Of course, there is no denying that some animals suffer more horribly than others. But what all societies that consume animals (which is virtually all of them), have in common is that at some point in their history, people decided that this is what animals exist for. In such a world, there is no culture that can truthfully claim the moral high ground.

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