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How Islamic law can protect Australian cows


Television viewers reeled on Monday night as graphic images of Australian cattle being slaughtered in Indonesia went to air. 

The ABC Four Corners program used footage captured by Animals Australia during its investigation with the RSPCA on how animals are killed after live transport. The methods, as Liberal MP Greg Hunt succinctly described them, were ‘unacceptable, extraordinarily out of touch with the modern world, and above all, cruel and inhumane’.

The response was immediate and intense. People tweeted, posted on Facebook, and contacted their MPs to vent their outrage. Online petitions against live export were soon inundated. 

Members on both sides of Parliament were also disturbed, the issue drawing out a level of bipartisanship not seen in the last three years. Within two days of the Four Corners report, the Gillard Government imposed an export ban against 11 Indonesian abattoirs identified as operating below international standards.

The public outrage highlights the assumptions modern meat-eaters make about how food arrives on their table. Most of us purchase our proteins from the supermarket, where they sit on sterile shelves neatly packaged in uniform containers. We are disconnected from the bloody business of rendering a live organism into a form fit for cooking and eating.

This disconnection explains in part the horror that met the footage of slaughter in Indonesia. While people are generally comfortable with the idea of animals being killed for human consumption, they prefer to assume such animals are killed humanely.

In the age of mass-produced meat, this actually brings us close to older traditions that saw animals as precious and saw their death in the service of humans as noble. Native Americans asked for pardon and gave thanks to animals they killed. Jewish and Muslim traditions also take seriously the business of slaughter, prescribing a method that involves a speedy death and hence the least pain.

Modern animal rights activism has restored the philosophy of ethical slaughter. They have to some degree made us more aware of and careful about how food gets on our plate. In Australia, we see this in the increasing demand for organically produced vegetables and meat, as well as Fairtrade commodities.

But how much of such consciousness exists in Indonesia? Any improvements to animal welfare must begin from local support if it is to be concrete and permanent. Given that Indonesians are predominantly Muslim, perhaps an appeal to change must begin with an appeal to the concept of halal; a term that designates what is permissible under Islamic law.

There are complications here. Stunning, for example, is considered by the RSPCA to be the only humane option, because it renders the animal unconscious before it is killed. However this is precisely the point of resistance for local slaughtermen, because halal requires the animal to be conscious. 

Yet the practices revealed in the Four Corners footage are certainly not halal. Dhabihah, the Islamic law that prescribes animal slaughter, insists on a swift severing of the jugular and carotid arteries with a sharp knife. The video shows a white steer with a broken leg being goaded for 25 minutes to stand; its nose and eye are gouged and it is kicked several times before it is finally slaughtered.

Perhaps the $4 million investment spent by the livestock export industry over the past decade to improve animal welfare in Indonesia could have been better spent on managing the idea of halal.

In Australia, the reversible (electrical) stunning method is now part of the most common form of halal slaughter. Even in instances where ritual slaughter is allowed, wherein a sharp knife is swiftly used to sever the jugular and carotid arteries, a captive-bolt pistol is used immediately after. 

These methods should have been promoted far more vigorously in order to bring Indonesian practices closer to international standards. Yet, in the 20 years that Australia has been involved in live export to Indonesia, only eight abattoirs of the hundred that receive Australian animals use stunning. 

Indeed, most of the investment by the industry seems to have gone toward the design and implementation of restraining boxes seen in the Four Corners report, which did nothing at all to make death speedy and less painful for animals. 

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a writer and former state school teacher.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Four Corners, live exports, Indonesia, halal



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Existing comments

We need to remember that Dhabihah prescribes the least painful and terrifying death possible at the time it was drawn up. The sharpness of the knife ensured swiftness of the cut and the obligatory severing of the carotid arteries ensured early loss of consciousness. (There is no jugular artery, and the cutting of the jugular veins is now known not to contribute to unconsciousness.) It is regrettable that the law insists that the animal be conscious and standing at the time of the cut. I would assume that it was intended to ensure that the animal is alive and well and safe to eat, but as presently interpreted it prevents stunning immediately before the cut rather than immediately afterwards.

Michael Grounds | 02 June 2011  

Seems that the insistence of a "swift severing of the jugular and carotid arteries with a sharp knife" would have been the best humane practice in ancient times. However that Islamic law would have been made before technology produced stun guns or firearms. Is it that there are no modernising mechanisms in Islamic law as with fundemental Christians who stick literally to everything written in the Bible perhaps particularly when it suits their case?

Larry McDingle | 02 June 2011  

Kosher restraning boxes have been in use in Australian meat works for more than 40 years. There was never any need to "develop" one for Indonesia; all that was required was to send the plans of the existing restraints to them and their needs and that of Oz cattle will be met. Such a fuss!!!

richard byrne | 02 June 2011  

Michael Grounds, actually Halal does allow stunning before slaughter, it’s only those who wrongly interpret it believe otherwise. Live export is totally unnecessary and as we saw on Four Corners and countless other investigations into live export, it's downright brutal.

Get Real | 02 June 2011  

The Ulama (council of imams) here in Indonesia has declared cruelty to animals in slaughterhouses "haram" (ie. forbidden). That may help.

ErikH | 02 June 2011  

I don't get it .Has this barbaric torture of the cattle got something to do with Halal .Shame on these people and shame on Australia for not acting years ago. Erikh, what is the reaction of people in Indonesia? Are the general population aware of this horror?

Beth | 02 June 2011  

If people are serious about not causing cruelty to animals why eat meat in the first place? Stunning does not necessarily render an animal unconscious, they are in a complete state of fear upon arriving at the unnatural and unfamiliar surroundings of the slaughterhouse and in the end, they have been killed for just a few minutes of our pleasure eating them.

Liz | 02 June 2011  

Islamic slaughter may or may not "protect" the cow, but ritual slaughter to a god who denies the deity, son-ship and crucifixion of Jesus Christ would render the meat in breach of the Biblical instruction to abstain from food sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29).

ML | 03 June 2011  

Yes it is all about education & our Industry bodies have already spent considerable budgets on improving treatment of cattle slaughtered in Indonesia ,as Fatima states .Readers must understand that many of these facilities are "cottage industry " or "back yard " scale & thus differcult to access . They provide the meat for the "wet" markets ,without refrigeration & thus require almost daily low volume kills .It certainly requires a varied approach (reminding them of their Islamic, halal requirements ,for our shared God would not abide the cruelty ).Only such an approach can work in the long term with or without Australian cattle .You need to be aware that Indonesian govt policy is to strive for self sufficiency in cattle production & this has already caused considerable grief to our northern producers with cattle over 350 Kg no longer accepted . Those with a sound knowledge of the industry do not believe they can achieve their desired self sufficiency ,so in fact we are morally obliged to continue to supply cattle along with the associated education programme .

John Kersh | 03 June 2011  

Yet another reason to cause pain and suffering in the name of religion...what kind of a god wants this?

Gerrie Mackey | 03 June 2011  

If you believe you have the right to eliminate all potential causes of pain being inflicted on animals prior to slaughter ,you had best campaign immediately to deny remote aboriginal people the right to hunt for food using their traditional weapons (spears & killing sticks).These weapons are at best crude & incapable of creating an immediate kill ,at best maiming the animal sufficiently to allow the hunter to wear it down prior to eventually killing .Yet professional roo shooters are often maligned despite the fact they are excellent marksmen using high performance rifles which allow them constant head shots & immediate death .One such bloke ,Steve , who operated on our family station was broadly known as "bang/dead "

John Kersh | 03 June 2011  

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