Happy Slaughters from Turkey: An Insider’s View of a National Islamic Tradition

By Teo Sagisman

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 18th, 2010.

This week the Turks are celebrating an age-old tradition, known as Eid al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) in Arabic. Called Kurban Bayrami in Turkish, this tradition is both religiously and culturally important to many Turks. Kurban Bayrami is a long extended holiday, equivalent to the importance and length of the Christmas celebrations in the western world.  The 4,000 year-old story behind the Feast of the Sacrifice is common to all Abrahamic religions – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in the modern world, only adherents to Islam commemorate it in this literal way.  As the story is told in the Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, and the Quran, God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his beloved son.  Abraham obeyed the order, but at the last moment, God showed his mercy by miraculously sending a lamb to be sacrificed instead.

During the holiday celebrating this miracle, every adult Muslim, who can afford to do so, is expected to either sacrifice an animal or have the sacrifice performed by a butcher.  The meat is then divvied up, some kept to be consumed at home, and the rest distributed to neighbors and, theoretically, the less fortunate.  It is a time for people to strengthen their relations with friends and family and celebrate the holidays with huge, Christmas/Thanksgiving like feasts.    It all sounds great for Turks participating in this religious and cultural tradition, but for me and for many moderate  Turks this is an outdated tradition that abuses animals and fosters violence.  In fact, to an outsider the goings on during the sacrifice may look like “collective insanity.”  Before we go any further, let me share some interesting information with you.

  • During the first day of the 2010 festivities, 2540 half-assed amateur butchers were hospitalized or ended up in emergency rooms for injuries sustained in the pursuit of satisfying this religious tradition.  Many cut their fingers, legs, and God knows what else.
  • Over 2 million lambs, goats, cows, bulls and camels were sacrificed during this event. Obviously, it sucks to be on the lower level of the food chain, especially in Turkey during “Kurban Bayrami”!
  • It is not uncommon to encounter these spectacles as one travels along the roads and highways.  Amateur butchers kill the animals and then hang them from cranes, hydraulic truck beds, or on make shift polls.
  • Among Muslim countries, Turkey has the highest observance of this sacrificial ritual, which may be connected to the shamanic faith and practices of pre-Islamic Turks who also carried out ritual killings of animals.A popular Turkish theologian, Ihsan Eliacik, known for his reinterpretations of the Quran, argues that the Islamic religious text do not actually command ritual slaughter as 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.”  In earlier times, pre-Islamic Arabs used the Ka’aba in Mecca, now the most sacred site in Islam, as a pagan pantheon and slaughtered animals there during pilgrimages to honor their gods.  Islam called for the Ka’aba, the pilgrimage, and the slaughter ritual to be reserved exclusively for Allah, the one and only God, Eliacik explains.
  • The government has been trying to educate the public in order to minimize the barbaric scenes that occur during this holiday, but it has been an uphill battle.  This year, Turkish authorities asked the public to stay away from “made in china knives” as their handles tend to break and botch the sacrifice.  It may be that this announcement was only intended to minimize the emergency room visits, not to ensure the quick and painless execution of the animals.

So why is it so important for Turks to practice this mass slaughter of animals all over the country?  And, can religion be used to justify these acts?  Beyond what is prescribed by Islamic tradition, and aside from the theory of pre-Islamic shamanic faith and practices, I believe that many participate in these mass sacrifices with the misguided expectation of gaining “points” for an afterlife in heaven.  As many Turks believe that sacrifice is one of the tenets of Islam, they sacrifice an animal to pay for the sins that they have accrued in this life.

Unfortunately, there is also a perception of gain of societal prestige for those with the financial ability to purchase animals for slaughter.  This societal/cultural gain is straightforward: a pissing contest with family and neighbors to prove who is financially flush!  Society frowns upon those who do not participate in the sacrifice.  If you can financially afford to participate, you are expected to do so.

The result of this mass sacrifice—a copious amount of meat shared by families that are not really in need.  Individual families in each apartment building sacrifice an animal, with the majority of meat traditionally intended to be distributed to the less fortunate.  In reality, the logistics of finding needy families in the vicinity is difficult, resulting in the recycling of the meat between family and friends.  Much of the meat is simply shared between those who could afford to participate.  In my observations, most people do not go the extra mile to send the bulk of the meat to charity, so if Ahmet sends Mehmet a platter of meat, Mehmet returns the favor by sending Ahmet his sacrificial meat.  Multiply this by twenty neighbors and relatives.  At the end of the Bayram (holiday), freezers and refrigerators are bulging at the seams!  To give you another example, if a well off businessman knows his rivals are sacrificing a cow, he will sacrifice a camel or a dozen lambs so he can show off his wealth.  Most of the meat will be sent off to the friends and relatives even though they may not be poor and needy.

In the mean time, you will see bizarre and bloody scenes playing out all over the cities and villages.  One such episode this year had people chasing a bull in boats as the animal saw the writing on the wall and ran away by jumping into the sea.  It is also common to see police shooting darts at cows that have run away and butchers or even a mob chasing animals with knives, ropes, and axes down the street.  If you are unfortunate enough to end up in an area that is populated by sacrifice eager rural participants, you may witness gory scenes straight out of a zombie movie.

Children exposed to these fierce and bloody sacrifices become desensitized towards the suffering of animals. According to the critics of the tradition, this festival also eliminates a dignifiedDesensitized kids watching the salughter. death for the sacrificial victims. Traditional Islamic Turks will argue that those who criticize the tradition of animal sacrifice are most likely hypocrites because they eat meat purchased from restaurants and grocery stores.  The issue goes far beyond that. The intent of the sacrifice is to take part in a religious/cultural tradition, which is ultimately to provide for the needy, but there are also other dimensions involved, including social, economic, environmental, psychosocial, and animal rights.

Looking at this from an animal rights perspective, we see the torturing of animals in the name of tradition by hanging them alive from their hind legs, and prolonging their misery at the hands of amateurs.  Then there is the issue of horrific and unnecessary violence that many find disturbing but are pressured by society to continue to participate. This annual tradition alone could prevent Turkey from becoming a full member of the European Union, as Europeans will not tolerate mass street slaughters in their backyards by the freely traveling Turkish nationals within their borders.

My proposal, along with most other moderate Turks, to fix this conundrum is to reform or better yet, stop this tradition.  If the real purpose of this tradition is religious, then it could be accomplished by donating the money to legitimate charities, which will slaughter the animals in more humane and sanitary conditions.  This will also ensure that the meat goes straight to the needy and the animal is not killed solely for social purposes of recycling meat amongst the neighbors.  The government needs to pass zoning laws to prohibit public sacrifices thereby forcing people to use official slaughterhouses and eliminating bloody executions on the street.

Unfortunately, eliminating or reforming this violent practice will be next to impossible for the following reasons: Eradicating this practice will remove the societal prestige that comes with the sacrifice and will challenge the age-old tradition and belief that the sacrificial blood represents and cleanses human sins.  This deeply ingrained belief that the blood of another living creature can actually pay for an individual’s sins is too compelling for many to surrender.



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