1 good, 1 bad

By LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

For those of you who watch Match of the Day 2, you’ll know part of the programme has a section called “2 good, 2 bad”. It certainly feels a little like that for secularists this last week or so. Two news items show that the battle for secular spaces continues around the world, with varying degrees of success.

The bad

Penguin India decided to withdraw from publication a book written by the American author Wendy Doniger called The Hindus: An Alternative History. This decision was on the basis that the book could potentially offend Hindu sensibilities. A little-known Hindu group brought an action in the courts claiming that the book insulted Hinduism. India has a fairly well-developed blasphemy law, which without becoming too legalistic essentially states that it’s a criminal offence to deliberately insult or outrage religious feelings.

Given these laws and the long history of authors being unwelcome in India, such as Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen for in their case offending Islam, one can perhaps understand why Penguin India made their decision, but it is nevertheless an act of blatant surrender to intolerant fundamentalist forces.

There has been an outcry against the decision from many notable authors and secularists in India, but Penguin India continues to defend its position. It is again another example of the principle of free speech being trampled upon by the “right” of the religious not to be offended. I’ve not read the book, but it is written by a distinguished academic who according to the reviews has apparently done nothing more offensive than studying Hinduism in its historical and cultural context. It seems the author has done nothing radical at all, and that the book is simply an academic study using reason and evidence for its conclusions. If that’s not allowed, then the principle of academic freedom is fundamentally compromised.

This is typical of the rise of religious forces. When one group, such as Muslims, demands special attention and protection, and the “right” not to be offended, inevitably it will lead to the rise of other religious groups demanding the same protection.

The good

It was a pleasant surprise to read that Denmark has decided to end the religious exemption to the rules regulating the slaughter of animalsThe new statute principally outlaws kosher and halal methods of slaughter, both of which provide that the animal must be conscious when it is killed by a sharp cut to the throat. In defending the decision Danish MPs have stated that in this instance animal welfare comes before religious principles.

It is a breath of fresh air. The usual shrieks of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have followed, and there is a spurious connection being made to the recent killing of a healthy giraffe in a Danish zoo. The giraffe was killed reasonably humanely (by a bolt gun, rather than lethal injection, so as not to contaminate the meat which provided a meal for the zoo’s lions), whereas ritual slaughter is anything but humane.

Denmark is one of the countries leading the way on this. Ending the exemption for kosher and halal slaughter is one of the LSS’s key campaigns and it is time the UK Government followed suit. As the LSS’s Dr Peter Bowen-Walker argued here and here, the UK regulations allow animals to be killed without prior stunning if this is a religious requirement. There are no rational, scientific or animal welfare arguments in favour of the exemption, and the RSPCA’s position is also clear on this: namely, stunning ought to be required in all animal slaughter. The only thing preventing this is the restriction to religious freedom. It would indeed be a restriction. However, animal welfare must take precedence here. Would we allow this exemption if it was for a political or cultural belief? I think not. So why the special treatment for religious belief? It is simply reflective of the influence and power society gives to religion. There is no rational argument for unstunned, religious slaughter in modern times. Enough is enough: it’s time for a change in the law.

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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