Egyptian Activist Relies on Islam to Fight for Animal Rights

From NY Times | 21st Nov 2010 | By Robert F. Worth Egyptians gather to watch bulls be slaughtered in accordance with Eid al-Adha tradit...

From NY Times | 21st Nov 2010 | By Robert F. Worth
Egyptians gather to watch bulls be slaughtered in accordance with Eid al-Adha tradition at a streetside butchery in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Cairo, Egypt.

CAIRO — It is never easy to be an animal rights activist in the Arab world. But on Id al-Adha, the annual Muslim religious holiday when the streets run red with the blood of slaughtered sheep, cows and camels, it is a nightmare.

“Ah, I can’t stand it!” wailed Amina Abaza, wincing as she drove through a gantlet of hanging carcasses and entrails, with doomed sheep bleating all around her. “Islam is all about compassion, but we don’t practice it!”

An ebullient 55-year-old with a big mane of blond hair, Ms. Abaza has spent a decade campaigning to spare the animals, or at least require more humane slaughtering methods. She has a long way to go.

The scene in Cairo’s working-class Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood Tuesday morning was fairly typical: camels bellowed as blood-soaked butchers wrestled dozens of animals to the ground and slashed their throats for an admiring crowd.

Neighbors leaned out their windows to watch and cheer, or snap cellphone pictures. Little boys daubed their hands in the blood and spattered one another, and teenagers helped remove steaming entrails from the carcasses. Scores of people pressed forward to buy fresh meat for the ritual holiday meal, standing in puddles of clotted gore.

For most Muslims, the holiday, which ended Friday night, is a joyful time with a charitable theme: according to tradition, a third of the slaughtered meat is to be given to relatives, and a third to the poor. It is a welcome gift in Egypt, where the price of meat has been rising and many families cannot afford it.

What bothers Ms. Abaza and other activists is not the principle of Id al-Adha — the Feast of Sacrifice — which commemorates the biblical story in which God allows Abraham to slaughter a ram instead of his own son. Nor do they object to animal slaughter itself (Ms. Abaza is not a vegetarian).

Instead, they complain that many butchers fail to abide even by Islam’s own strictures: that the animal should not be mistreated, and should not see or hear other animals being killed.

Amateurs slaughter their own sheep at home in many Arab countries, with no special training on how to spare the animals pain. It is common to see men hurling terrified sheep into the backs of trucks, and beating the animals as they herd them to the killing grounds. In abattoirs, some workers sodomize the beasts with knives to drive them into the pens, Ms. Abaza and other activists said.

Amina Abaza, an Egyptian animal rights activist. Scott Nelson for The New York Times

“If you want to give a good image of Muslims and the Koran, why do you do this?” Ms. Abaza said, her operatic voice rising in indignation. “Why are we Muslims the ones known for this kind of behavior?”

Ms. Abaza and a small but growing band of fellow activists have had some impact. In 2006 she helped an Australian reporter film at a slaughterhouse with a hidden camera. The resulting exposé created a scandal in Australia, and soon afterward the Australian government suspended shipping live sheep to Egypt.

That got Ms. Abaza some attention, most of it negative. “People think we are attacking Islam,” she said. “They accuse you of being an American, a Jew, a Freemason.”

It is true that Westerners tend to recoil a bit from the mass slaughter that takes place on Id al-Adha, despite the reality that plenty of animals are slaughtered in the West in ways that make animal rights activists cringe. Muslims can be sensitive about the Western reaction, and Ms. Abaza, who grew up here in a wealthy Francophone family, is an easy target.

When she first started her organization in 2001, the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt, her rhetoric was largely borrowed from similar Western groups.

“Then I discovered that there are animal rights in Islam,” she said. “Once we started using the Islamic arguments, they didn’t attack us as much.”

Some religious authorities agree with Ms. Abaza, but they rarely raise their voices, certainly not on the Adha holiday.

“Muslims are passing through a period of degeneration where they are applying the Shariah law circumstantially and moodily,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Baba, a prominent Sunni cleric and member of the Islamic Endowment Council in Lebanon. “Some ordinary people do the slaughtering process and in a wrong way. They don’t have experience, they don’t know we are obliged not to harm the animal.”

In fact, the Koran and the Islamic written traditions that form Shariah, or religious law, specify minimum ages for animals to be slaughtered, and provide details about avoiding any unnecessary pain, Sheik Baba said.

In fairness, those rules are difficult to apply on a large scale. At the Basateen slaughterhouse, near the vast cemetery known as the City of the Dead, butchers stride about in knee-high rubber boots, surrounded by lakes of feces, blood and urine. It was here that the Australian reporter documented animal abuses in 2006.

But the procedures do not appear to have changed. On Monday, one butcher described it this way: “We just throw them on their sides and cut their throats and say ‘Allahu Akbar.’ ” Asked whether the beasts were able to see and hear others being killed, he replied: “Sure, why not?”

As for Ms. Abaza, she chose to celebrate the holiday in her own unique way. She drove to the local sheep market, where she bought a female sheep for 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about $175) and asked the butchers to load it in the back of her S.U.V. The men offered to slaughter it for her, and on hearing that she planned to “rescue” it, they could not contain their mirth. She paid no attention.

“Baaaa! You’re lucky!” she said jauntily, beaming at the animal.

She then drove to her ramshackle farm in the town of Sakara, on the outskirts of Cairo, where she keeps donkeys and sheep as pets. On the way, she groaned as she passed trucks full of sheep headed for slaughter, and dozens of fly-specked animal carcasses hanging in the sun.

“It’s a bloody day,” she said scornfully. “I hate this feast. Millions will be killed.”

Dawlat Magdy and Scott Nelson contributed reporting from Cairo, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.


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  1. Wow, very eye-opening article. I have personally never seen any slaughtered animals on this holiday, as in the States, there is not much opportunity. It is sad to hear that in the examples given here and I'm sure in other nation with large Muslim populations, that the animals are not treated according to Islamic laws, principles.


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