Ritual Slaughter, Religious Difference & the Animal Proxy

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October 16, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich


Image by Flickr user josephph14

The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha ended last night. Yesterday morning, on my way to the train in Brooklyn, the sidewalks in front of the neighborhood masjid were packed with families. Adults were in conversation, kids were running after each other, school apparently far from their minds. A number of my own students had emailed, to let me know they weren’t going to be in class. I found myself in a kind of nostalgic and wistful frame of mind,  wishing for a holiday, too. Celebration can be infectious.

But celebration can also be inflammatory and the holiday was marked with strife, and chaos, in other places this year. Things were especially bad in Moscow, it seems. There was rioting on Monday, after the stabbing of a Russian man was blamed on a migrant from the local community of Muslims who hail largely from the Caucasus region and Central Asia. Reports allege that Russian nationals were flipping over cars in the street. Other rioters were breaking store windows. Apparently somewhere between 1200 and 1600 Muslim migrants have been detained by Moscow police. Even today, city officials in Moscow are asking residents to stay home, and to keep their shops closed. So tensions continue. Hackers defaced the website of a Russian Muslim organization, covering it with a photo of a severed pig’s head, bearing a Quran in its jaws.

The image, of course, was directly aimed to offend and violate the taboo against eating pork. But conflict within Christian, post-Christian, or “secular” territories, related to the presence of growing Muslim communities in their mix, is often waged through animal proxies. That this should be the case during Eid al-Adha should, perhaps, be less than surprising. It is, after all, a holiday that marks the feast of sacrifice, calling for performances of ritual slaughter that evoke the memory of Ibrahim/Abraham’s slaughter of a lamb, when his god decided not to force the sacrifice of Abraham’s only son. Animals, and the death of animals, are at the heart of this holiday. It’s inevitable that any conflict arising in its wake will be related, somehow, to the politics of animal life.

In fact, in Moscow, this act of ritual slaughter has been one of the driving forces behind growing political tensions over the past decade. There are more than 100,000 Muslims migrants working in Moscow, now, and apparently only four mosques. Non-Muslim residents of Moscow have been complaining about acts of ritual slaughter that take place in the street, or on the balcony of apartment buildings (many of the migrants are from rural areas). In 2010, local government in Moscow took the step of banning ritual slaughter within the city limits. This year, before the riots created a whole new problem, Moscow city officials were already warning Muslims to keep their ritual out of the city. Apparently they were hoping that this would suffice to stem political tensions.

In Poland, the holiday conflict has been entirely limited to the politics of ritual slaughter. Apparently a group of “animal rights activists” (I put this in scare quotes because I’m not sure if this was a self-identification, or if there’s an organization or set of organizations they were allying themselves with) attempted to prevent a Muslim community in eastern Poland from performing the ritual. A new law, in Poland, has completely outlawed ritual slaughter, requiring the use of stunning (now common in most secular slaughterhouses) in all animal death. This was a deeply controversial move among both Jews and Muslims in Poland, and some have been working to overturn the decision. But, for now, the law stands. And it appears that it’s already creating a certain kind of division within Muslim communities, between those who are abstaining from the ritual act during this Eid al-Adha, and those who aren’t.

Such is the mark of globalization and its attendant secularizations on complexes of what we name as “religious tradition”. Recent conflict, in L.A., over the act of chicken slaughter in kaparot rituals before Yom Kippur, illuminate lines of difference between groups of Jews who observe the ritual, and those who don’t. Lines of difference between human communities are drawn over and through animal bodies.

I recently discussed the Polish ban on ritual slaughter with students in my Religious Ethics class. We were talking about religious positions on food ethics, broadly (including religious vegetarianism). So we’d spent quite a bit of time talking about factory farming. A number of students in the class, particularly my Muslim students, were perplexed by the fact that Poland didn’t seem particularly up in arms about the act of animal slaughter itself (nor the politics of factory farming) so much as the act of ritual slaughter. Many of them felt that concern over animal suffering seemed to be serving as a kind of proxy for what was, at base, ultimately a distaste for a particular sort of fellow human.

Religious traditions that are ancient have particularly bad track records when it comes to their social relations with other forms of animal life. Traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, have (in flickers and flashes) expressed the value and goodness of animal life. But this has rarely stopped Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus from objectifying animals. Ritual and tradition are powerful, within these complexes we describe as religions. The power that these rituals and traditions bear is affective, blending emotion and somatic memory in deep links below and within the tissues and fibers of the body. It is a link with immediate family members who have died, it is a link with ancient ancestors who serve as pillars of faith. These rituals and traditions are difficult to shake. Indeed, many do not wish to shake them at all.

And it is equally as difficult, perhaps, for those who do not feel the affective pull of these rituals and traditions to avoid seeing something “off”, something dark, about the logic of sacrifice that animates them. It is, in other words, equally as difficult not to be bewildered, or bothered, by rituals glimpsed from a kind of outside.

Acknowledging these potentially unbridgeable impasses, however, I still think it’s important to point out that, when the treatment of animals marks a political border line between types or categories of human being, this is still an objectification and strategic utilization of animals. It may be that one does not wish to associate herself with the historical trajectory of a religious tradition that would justify the objectification of animals.  But when one group claims that its respect for animal life is more humane and civilized than the horrifying manner in which another group treats animals, the animals themselves become stand-ins. The more they are wrapped up in antagonistic political conflicts between human groups, the more animals become political symbols. The more they become political symbols, the more they are frozen into the frescos that iconize the narrative of a particular human community’s power and moral authority.

How to avoid using animals as proxies in political conflict between humans, in their difference? How to avoid letting animals become stand-ins? Such a thing is, perhaps, far easier said than done. What would it really mean not to categorize or label oneself as different (superior), according to the ways in which one does or does not engage with, or make use of, other animals? What would it mean not to think of oneself as a different brand of person entirely based on what non-human animals one will (or will not) eat, or wear, or keep at home? Have some of the most tense and divisive political borderlands not been built – at least partially – from this sort of variegated treatment of animal lives? A world without these sorts of frontiers is, perhaps, a world that is yet unexplored. It may not even be among the set of possible, or desired, worlds.

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