The quandary of animal sacrifice

On Tuesday I went for a wander through the knot of small streets behind my apartment complex in inner Jakarta. In a laneway typically occupied by bakso sellers and old people smoking kretek there was an enthusiastic crowd of men in blood-splattered T-shirts methodically carving up the carcass of a bull they'd recently slaughtered. A crowd of kids were gathered around, boys with crew cuts and girls in fine dresses, staring at the men as they got to work.

That's how Idul Adha 1434 was marked by the congregants at the Jami' Al-Ikhlas mosque in Setiabudi, and it pretty much reflects what happens in thousands of mosques across Indonesia and much of the Muslim world. Idul Adha is the festival of the sacrifice, honouring the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) offering to kill his son Ismail (Ishmael) as a sign of his submission to God's command, before God offered Abraham a lamb to sacrifice instead. In many developed countries the slaughtering of an animal (usually a lamb, sheep or bull) on site at a mosque is not permitted, but it's a practice that is flourishing in many poorer places, where dozens of creatures are sacrificed and the meat distributed to poor people.

The amateur anthropologist in me trumped the squeamish vegetarian, and I went to watch the slaughtering up close at Jami' Al-Ikhlas. I took plenty of photos and uploaded a series onto Facebook (you can see the shots here - pretty gruesome). I received several responses. Many people were disgusted by the bloodiness of the scene and the pained death throes of the animal as it struggled to fight the inevitable, and I suspect a few were put off their dinner.

The process of slaughtering an animal involves progressively stripping it of its dignity. A creature bred to be killed will most likely have an unnatural upbringing, unable to bond properly with its parents. Then it will be denied any agency over its actions, forced to eat what it is provided when it is provided and mate with whom it is instructed. Then it will be physically constrained as it is taken to the place where it will die. Then it will lose control of its bowel as fear strikes. Then it will be forced to the ground by having its legs pushed from under it. Then it will spurt its blood after a blade is run across its jugular. Then it will be stripped of its limbs. Then its skin. Then its internal organs. And finally it will be cut into pieces, stripping it of its corporeal essence. It will, in the process, have moved from a bull to beef.

And as a vegetarian for more than half my life, I felt like I should be disgusted at the Idul Adha ritual. A desire to avoid the unnecessary suffering of creatures is a significant motivation for my vegetarianism, and here I was, seeing the panic of an innocent creature as it stared bleakly at its tormentors.

But instead of disgust, a felt a sense of reference at the tradition, in particular its ability to bring together who might otherwise remain separate, and its role in forcing people to confront some uncomfortable truths.

The celebration fosters a stronger sense of community. At Masjid Jami' Al-Ikhlas on Tuesday, dozens of men came together to be a part of the tradition, each playing a part in the long chain of labours involved in turning a bull into beef. These were rich men and poor men, old men and young men, office workers and street sweepers, Betawi and Batak, all involved in a common enterprise. Younger children would watch with horrified excitement, and those in their teens would be given tasks, often by their fathers, to help them learn the skills and continue the tradition. The process served as a form of charity, with wealthy locals donating money toward the purchase of cattle, and the meat being shared among hungry old people and families with skinny children. The bond between everyone involved finished the day stronger. Few events have such power.

By taking the slaughtering of an animal out of the sterile surrounds of an abattoir and putting it in people's neighbourhood makes them more aware of their place in the food chain. Many people, particularly those like me who grew up and live in cities, are allowed to remain aloof about the origins of the food they eat, deliberately keeping themselves ignorant because deep down they know the truth that their food choices necessitate the suffering of other creatures. In distancing ourselves from the slaughtering process, the suffering is no less, just our awareness of it. Bringing the slaughtering closer to home forces people to confront the reality of their own choices. Most will continue to make those same choices, but will do so in fuller knowledge of the consequences. Others might change their mind.

I read with interest that Eddie Perfect, the great Australian singer and showman, has turned his hand to writing a script for a stage-play, "The Beast". The play, according to an excellent profile in The Monthly, is about three middle-class tree-change couples who arrange for a calf to be ethically butchered for a dinner party but end up faced with the grim task of killing the creature themselves. In a way the characters in "The Beast" are taking on the same challenge as Muslims do at Idul Adha - to watch the process of suffering that leads to their dinner without flinching.

(There is a potential downside to masses of people having regular exposure to the killing of creatures: the risk of desensitisation. It is easier for ordinary people to be pushed by dark forces to become bloodthirsty killers, as happens with startling frequency in cases of community violence in Indonesia, if they are no longer squeamish about putting a blade to the throat of a creature and watching it struggle to hold onto life. It is also harder for people to maintain their sense of outrage at bloodshed if they see it so often.)

Watching Idul Adha in full swing, I'm more confident than ever that I made the right ethical decision in turning vegetarian. But I also feel no desire to criticise those who do take part in the event. Perhaps questions should instead be asked of people who are willing to enjoy the spoils of slaughter but aren't willing to participate in, or even witness, it themselves.


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