The Netherlands does not get a lot of media play in Canada. Save for improbable World Cup runs where the orange adopt an almost Canadian approach to soccer (complete with bone-crushing body checks), Holland quietly goes about its business as an overachieving country, unnoticed by the rest of the world.
When North Americans do think about the Netherlands, it’s usually in favourable terms. The Netherlands is considered a bastion of progress. After all, the Netherlands was home to the great humanist Erasmus, and not a few of the godfathers of the Enlightenment, for instance René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza for instance. Back in the day, Holland was the place to escape from religious persecution and enjoy the tranquility of order which comes from a robust conception of religious freedom.
But all is not well in the low countries these days. Recently, the Netherlands passed a law mandating that animals killed for food must be stunned before they are processed. On the face of it, it seems like an innocuous piece of legislation; most people have no idea how their beef is prepared and are usually happier not knowing. As long as it can be tossed on the BBQ, most people don’t care how it gets there.
But, as we’re wont to point out here at Cardus, laws aren’t made in some neutral space according to the dictates of cool reason. Laws—even food laws—come from somewhere, and if you follow the line backwards, you often come to a religious source. In all cases, laws have deep social implications.
In the case of the Dutch food law on stunning requirements, there are direct implications for religious freedom. While many Dutch don’t care how their meat is prepared, there are some who care a great deal about how their meat is prepared and have deep, long-standing, and religious reasons for doing so. In this case, the law proposed by the Party for Animals (click the link; I didn’t believe it either) runs directly contrary to the religious food laws of Jews and Muslims in the Netherlands.
It’s an interesting case study in how we conceive of progress these days, and it exposes a number of fault lines in the Dutch political community, and, as a result the rest of the West (Holland has long been the bellwether for Western political culture).
The first fault line is the priority of humans over animals. There has been increasing talk—in the name of compassion—of placing animals on par with humans (the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer being one of the more notorious in this camp). The question of whether people have a special place and responsibility in this world—or whether they are the moral equivalent of Shrek the Sheep—is likely to emerge as a hot topic of debate in the West. The corollary of this—because religion is unique to humans—is whether religion will continue to be seen as fundamentally opposed to a progressive body politic or something to be highly valued and protected at all costs.
The second fault line is how the Mozart-haired Geert Wilders and his ilk will respond. Wilders is lauded by many in the Netherlands (and in Canada) as a hero of free speech. However, this food law exposes the limits and potential contradictions in his thinking. If the Muslims are an inherent threat to Western liberalism, are we willing to pass illiberal laws to ensure our society remains progressive?
Thankfully, there are at least two parties in the Netherlands who possess a robust enough political program to oppose these laws on principle. So, Hup Holland for them, and a strong Tut Tut Holland! to the others.