Conflict & Justice

Some Germans Intolerant of Islamic Animal Slaughter

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German flag (Photo: Patentboy/Flickr)

Animal rights are a big issue in Germany. It is currently the fifth largest producer of meat in the world, butchering the world's third highest number of pigs, more than 55 million a year.

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How Germans slaughter the animals they eat is strictly regulated, more than in most EU countries. But Germans' concern for animals also has a dark side.

The Nazis vilified the Jewish method of slaughtering animals. And today Germans are intolerant of the tradition of its four million Muslims.

The methods of slaughtering animals are pretty much the same for Jews and Muslims: Both forbid animals from being stunned or knocked unconscious before their throats are slit and both use the same sort of knife.

Reuven Yaacobov is a rabbi in Berlin and a shochet, someone trained to slaughter animals according to Jewish law.

"The knife does not have a point," he said. "Its shape is rectangular so it cannot be used to stab only to cut. And it must be as sharp as a razorblade."

Yaacobov says the kosher or halal ways of slaughter are more humane and respectful to animals. Not like the industrial methods common in Germany, which do not acknowledge the sacrifice an animal makes with its life. But historically it's the Germans who consider Jewish butchering cruel and bloodthirsty.

The notorious Nazi propaganda film "The Eternal Jew" shows gory scenes of Jews slaughtering animals.

"These images reveal the character of a race of people who conceal their crude brutality in the guise of religious piety. … Immediately after taking power the Füher, passed a law ensuring the all warm blooded animals would be stunned before they are slaughtered. And so Jewish blood can never again contaminate the German people."

Kosher butchers were put out of business over night.

But after World War Two — and having slaughtered 6 million Jews — it could be said that Germans lost the moral authority to tell anyone what kind of killing was humane.

Today Germany has a small but vibrant Jewish community and kosher slaughtering is allowed. But Germany also has a huge Muslim population now, mostly from Turkey.

German authorities have become less tolerant of their practice. Its federal administrative court, one of the highest courts in the land, decided in 1995 that Muslims had to stun animals before killing them while Jews didn't.

Every Muslim butcher in Germany either agreed to stun or pretended to. Every Muslim butcher except one: Rüstem Altinküpe, a Fleischermeister, the highest qualification a butcher in Germany can attain.

Since 1988 he has lived in the center of a medieval village called Werdorf, in the state of Hessen where most of the 3,100 inhabitants are German. Downstairs is a butcher shop and a little slaughterhouse. He and his family live above.

For seven years Altinküpe's butchery went well and he invested in the latest technology. But then in 1995 came the ban. He saw it as an attack on a basic right

"The Jews can practice the same form of animal slaughter as Muslim but I, as a Muslim cannot," Altinküpe said.

Altinküpe found a lawyer who agreed that this was an injustice.

"Because people living in Germany of the Muslim faith who want to obey by stricter rules with regard to food, they cannot be told to become vegetarians, they cannot be told to buy imported food," said Rainer Nickel, who specializes in the German constitution.

Nickel represented Altinküpe all the way to Germany's equivalent of the Supreme Court. It issued its judgment in 2002.

"The constitutional court decided in our favor and in the decision expressly said we have found a violation of fundamental rights and the case was sent back to the administrative court," Nickel said.

End of story… or so it would seem.

"On the one hand we won everything, but on the other hand we won the battle but we lost the war," Nickel said.

And Nickel and Altinküpe have been going round and round in German bureaucratic circles ever since.

"It's very complex and very complicated. I can't even count the times we have been to court," Nickel said.

They've been in federal and state courts, courts of appeal and the constitutional court — twice. And they've won every time. But the problem is that courts don't issue licenses. That job goes to a district administrator named Reinhard Strack-Schmalor.

"We have an extra filing cabinet just for Altinküpe," Strack-Schmalor said. "For me personally the case is a huge burden and I get pressure from animal rights activists, and I can tell you right here I am also egged on by the extreme right."

That's to say Neo-Nazis, whose traditional hatred of Jews is now mostly directed against Muslims. A couple of years ago Altinküpe's house was set on fire. Strack-Schmalor certainly didn't approve, and he insists he has nothing against Muslims.

But despite the rulings of so many of Germany's courts he still thinks Muslims should not be allowed to slaughter without stunning because in Islam there are ways around it.

Needless to say, Altinküpe doesn't think Strack-Schmalor knows what he's talking about. You don't have to go to a Muslim country, he says. In the US, France, the UK, Muslims butchers are all licensed to slaughter without stunning.

But what really galls Altinküpe is that a local German bureaucrat can impose his interpretation of Islam. Even after Germany's highest court overturned the ban on halal slaughter, Strack-Schmalor found all sorts of technicalities to delay or hinder giving Altinküpe a license.

"So we were again in the situation where we would have to go to court and challenge all these conditions individually." Nickel said.

Last year Altinküpe got a license, but only to slaughter 30 sheep and 2 cows a week. But this year Strack-Schmalor said he was reviewing the license, and so far the slaughterhouse has remained idle.

Still Altinküpe is hopeful that in modern day Germany justice will ultimately prevail.

Jews in Germany are not yet speaking out on his behalf. Some say it's not their business and worry that they could also lose their right to slaughter.

Others contend that if anyone should be speaking up about religious freedoms it should be Germany's Jewish population.