Kurban Bayram conundrum in Turkey: To slaughter or not to slaughter?
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 11/15/2010 12:00:00 AM | MUSTAFA AKYOL
The annual practice of putting millions of sheep and cattle to the knife to honor God is prompting debate in Turkey as the Kurban Bayram holiday begins Tuesday.
The annual practice of putting millions of sheep and cattle to the knife in the name of honoring God is once again prompting debate in Turkey as the Kurban Bayram holiday begins Tuesday.
Critics of the ritual sacrifice involved in the holiday, which is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, say the practice is outdated and fosters violence; they call for it to be reformed – or eliminated altogether.
The age-old tradition, known as Eid al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) in Arabic, has become controversial in Turkey as conservative immigrants from rural Anatolia have migrated to Istanbul and other large cities, where it is neither easy nor welcome to slaughter an animal on the street. Doing so creates “disturbing scenes” according to some urban Turks and Turkish media outlets that have been complaining about encountering animals, and their bloody remains, in unexpected parts of the city.
Staunchly secular columnist Bekir Coşkun stirred up the debate recently with a piece in daily Cumhuriyet in which he denounced the “culture of slaughter” he claimed the animal sacrifices instill in people’s minds, implying a link between the traditional celebration of the holiday and violent crime in Turkish society. Conservative commentators reacted to the column, accusing Coşkun of disrespecting sacred values and pointing out that violence exists in all societies, saying Coşkun only put the blame on an Islamic ritual due to his own bias.
Though the 4,000-year-old story behind the Feast of the Sacrifice is common to all believers in “Abrahamic” religions – Jews, Christians and Muslims – in the modern world, only adherents to Islam commemorate it in a literal way. As the story is told in both the Bible and the Quran, God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his beloved son to his Lord. Abraham obeyed the order, but at the last moment, God showed his mercy by miraculously sending a lamb to be the victim of the sacrifice instead.
During the holiday celebrating this miracle, every adult Muslim who can afford it is expected to either sacrifice an animal or – more commonly these days – have it done by a butcher. The meat is then divvied up, some of it kept to be consumed at home, and the rest distributed to neighbors, especially the less fortunate.
[HH] The reform agenda
As even some religious conservatives have come to find the practice disturbing, more modern solutions have recently been developed so Muslims can fulfill the duty of sacrifice without witnessing the bloodshed. Municipalities and various charity organizations collect money – generally a few hundred Turkish Liras – from believers in return for a package of meat delivered from a modern slaughterhouse. Other groups sacrifice the animals in foreign lands, to distribute all of the meat in starving regions of Africa or Asia.
In addition to this type of modernizing “reform,” some Islamic scholars argue for a much more radical change: abandoning the practice all together. İhsan Eliaçık, a popular theologian known for his reinterpretations of the Quran, has argued that the religious text does not actually say ritual slaughter is a duty for all Muslims. “When we look at the Quranic verses on animal slaughter, we see that all of them are related to pilgrimage,” he said. In earlier times, he explained, Arabs used the kaabah in Mecca – now the most sacred site in Islam – as a pagan pantheon and slaughtered animals there during pilgrimages to honor their idols. Islam called for the kaabah, the pilgrimage and the slaughter ritual to be reserved exclusively for Allah, the one and only God.
“But later scholars thought that not just the pilgrims but all Muslims should do a sacrifice during the time of pilgrimage,” Eliaçık said. “This is a later interpretation that we can question and change.”
Among the reforms Eliaçık supports is using electroshock to stun the animals into unconsciousness before they are slaughtered in order to reduce the amount of pain they experience. More conservative Muslims, along with Orthodox Jews – who use similar traditional slaughtering practices, known as “Shechita,” to obtain kosher meat – have rejected this pre-stunning, arguing that it will make the animals ritually unclean.
[HH] A shamanic tradition?
“Among Muslim countries, Turkey has the highest observance of the slaughter ritual,” Eliaçık said, adding that he believes this is connected to the shamanic faith and practices of pre-Islamic Turks who also carried out ritual killings of animals. He compared this to the common aversion to pork, which he said was also shunned as unclean by the ancient Turks. “Of course pork is banned by the Quran, but many Turks indulge in other things banned by the Quran, such as wine, while never ever touching pork,” he said.
Ultimately, Eliaçık suggested, the Feast of the Sacrifice should be abandoned and turned into a “Feast of Solidarity,” in which charity for the needy is provided in ways other than through meat distribution. Another popular Islamic thinker, Hüseyin Hatemi, thinks similarly. “In the prophet’s time, animals were slaughtered for the hungry pilgrims who traveled for days to reach the kaabah,” he said. “Today, we Muslims really don’t need this ‘meat festival.’”
Such reformist views are popular with the media and seem appealing to the more modernized part of Turkish society. Yet millions of others see the Feast of the Sacrifice as a part of Islam that should never be abandoned, and dismiss the critics who see the practice as brutal. As a post on one Islamic website argued, “Unless one is a vegetarian, then, as a meat-eater, he has no right to object to the Feast of the Sacrifice.”