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Slaughtering for God - and for thy global neighbors

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Dail News | 11/27/2009 12:00:00 AM | MUSTAFA AKYOL

As the Feast of the Sacrifice comes this year again, Muslims in Turkey are increasingly switching their focus from backyard sacrifices to providing international charitable aid.

Millions of sheep and cattle will be slaughtered in Turkey during this long weekend. And the last words they will hear will be an age-old credo: “There is no deity but God… And to God goes all praise.”

These are the days of the “Feast of the Sacrifice,” one of the two apexes of the Muslim calendar. (The other one, which was about two months ago, marks the ending of the Ramadan fast.) During the four-day feast, which is also a national holiday, every well-off Muslim adult is obliged to sacrifice a sizeable animal. This is, first and foremost, a form of worship. “It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God,” the Koran reminds. “It is your piety that reaches Him.” But there is also a social side of the practice, for the meat does reach neighbors, relatives and especially the poor.

[HH] From paganism to monotheism

The story goes back to the beginnings of Islam. Most pre-Islamic Arabs were pagans, and, like many other ancient peoples, they honored their idols by sacrificing animals. The Kaabah, which was then a pagan pantheon, was the center for these bloody rituals. The Koran, which banned all sorts of idolatry, told Muslims to sacrifice the animals only for their creator, the one and only God. It also told them the story of Abraham and his son, and how the latter was saved from being sacrificed at the last moment, thanks to being miraculously replaced by a sheep.

Since then, Muslims all around the world have been commemorating Abraham’s dramatic story during the time of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Kaabah, which is this weekend this year, but moves back 11 days every year because of the difference between the lunar and Gregorian calendars. The pilgrims at the Kaabah offer their sacrifices there, though others do it in their hometowns – in Cairo, Jakarta, Istanbul, or wherever.

[HH] The urban debate

Animal slaughter, to be sure, is no pretty business. Hence, to avoid giving the poor animals too much pain, Islamic scholars developed specific rules: The animals should be treated kindly up to the final moment. They should not see what happens to the ones before them. And the butcher should be as swift and smooth as possible.

Modern times, however, are apparently bringing even better solutions: An article on the Web site of Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs, the “Diyanet,” says that there is no religious obstacle “to anesthetizing the animal to save it from pain,” in contrast to some of the more conservative voices who disapproved of anesthetization.

The question is not only how the job should be done though. It is also a question of where. In the old days, the animals were slaughtered by the man of the house or the local butcher, and the location was simply a backyard or an open field in the town or village. However, the more Turkey became urbanized, the more this practice became difficult – and disturbing.

Scenes of people butchering sheep or cows near the highways of Istanbul became increasingly controversial, and criticism came not only from secular people, but also some religious leaders. A few among the latter, such as the moderate Islamic thinker Hüseyin Hatemi, have even called for total abandonment of the practice, which he sees not as an undeniable component of Islam, but as a tradition bound by time. “At the prophet’s time, animals were slaughtered for the hungry pilgrims who traveled for days to reach the Kaabah,” he wrote two years ago. “Today, we Muslims don’t really need this ‘meat festival.’”

[HH] Meatpacking for Congo

Most practicing Muslims in Turkey seem to have found a middle way, though, between Dr. Hatemi’s bold reformism and the old way of backyard slaughter. They increasingly prefer to use the Internet or phone to make a donation of a certain amount (between 250 to 350 Turkish Liras) to charities that do the job for them in modern and hygienic slaughterhouses and then distribute the meat to those who really need it. These days, television channels, newspapers and billboards are full of advertisements for such “sacrifice charities.”

Remarkably, some of these organizations are focused more on foreign countries than Turkey itself. An NGO named Doctors Worldwide-Turkey have been collecting money from religious Turks since 2005 in order to offer sacrifices as far away as Congo. “It is a county traumatized by malnutrition,” says Professor M. İhsan Karaman, the head of the organization. “They need this food more than anybody else.” Their Web site said the organization distributed meat to nearly 40,000 poor families across Congo last year.

Other “sacrifice charities” are even more ambitious. The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or İHH, performs as its website proudly notes, “sacrificial slaughters in 110 regions and countries worldwide,” including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Cuba, Palestine, Thailand or Vietnam. Every year poor Muslim communities in these countries receive thousands of packages of meat, the İHH notes, thanks to the donations of “Turkey’s charitable people.”

All this perhaps underlines not just the charity but also the growing globalism of Turkish Islam. In the old days, the meat from the sacrifice would go to neighbors in the same village or street. Yet the “neighbors,” it seems, now include Muslims all across the globe.

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