Sounds like something straight out of the ancient Biblical Ten Plagues: rivers of blood flowing down city streets.
Except that it was happening last week right outside of the homes of people celebrating the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha.
The Eid, or Festival of the Sacrifice, one of the holiest events of the Muslim year, honors the Biblical and Koranic story of Abraham. You’ll recall that in the Bible, Abraham is commanded by the deity to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but at the last minute an angel stops him, saying that Abraham has passed his “test” of faith and obedience. So Abraham catches one of his sheep and sacrifices him instead.
Millions of clueless people wrestling with terrified animals on their front doorsteps, struggling to slit their throats as prescribed by religious law.It’s hard for fundamentalists of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to deal with all the troubling questions this story raises. But at least most people of these three faiths no longer believe in human sacrifice.
However, there’s still the question of animal sacrifice, and that’s a whole other story.
In the celebration of the Eid, the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the demise of the ram in his place is commemorated in a “festival” that involves the slaughter of literally millions of sheep and other animals in countries all over the world.
Much of this grotesque slaughter takes place right on people’s front doorsteps. Muslim law requires that the sacrificial sheep, cows and other animals must be killed according to Halal ritual prescriptions (similar to the Jewish kosher laws). These laws require that the blood, which according to scripture is sacred to the deity, be fully drained from the animal before she can be eaten.
The result is that in preparation for the Eid, you have millions of clueless people wrestling with terrified animals right on their front doorsteps, struggling to hold them upside down in order to slit their throats in the way that’s prescribed for the blood to drain properly.
And so it was that in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, last week, the blood of thousands of slaughtered sheep and other animals was flowing down streets that were already soaked by monsoon rains, creating a ghoulish scene of rivers of blood and water streaming across the city. As The Guardian reported it:
“I felt I was walking through a post-apocalyptic neighborhood,” said Atish Saha, a Dhaka-based artist. “To be honest, I was scared. It was an image of mass violence that shouldn’t ever be experienced.”
Particularly jarring was said to be the sight of families, including infants, wading into the flood in celebratory “Eid day” moods. “It made me speechless,” he said.
Saha said the ritual slaughter was continuing in parts of the city on Wednesday.
The waters had mostly receded by the morning but bitumen and dirt roads still had a reddish hue and were littered with animal entrails.
For the animals who are co-opted into this ritual sacrifice, those final terrifying moments are just the end of a much longer ordeal. Two million of them are born and raised thousands of miles away in Australia until it’s time for them to be loaded onto giant transport ships and exported to Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and other countries. Many die along the way.
When they’re unloaded, the survivors can be left crowded together in pens for days on end, without food or water and under a blistering sun, waiting for the day of their sacrifice.
Here’s how one such scene was described by Animals Australia, which campaigns to end the live export of these animals:
Last year at the Dubai Slaughterhouse, lines of cars with animals in [the trunks] awaiting slaughter extended some two kilometers. Two streets away, a crowd watched the ‘sacrifice’ of an imported steer from Somalia. The terror of this animal, as its legs were trussed and thrown to the ground, was undeniable.
In poorer countries like Bangladesh, families might raise a couple of sheep or goats in their backyards in preparation for the festival.
Animal sacrifice is, of course, not unique to Islam. In New York City, on the eve of the Day of Atonement (coming up in two weeks), many Orthodox Jews still practice the bizarre ritual of “kapporos”, which involves buying a live chicken from a dealer, tying her legs, swinging her around your head, and then killing her. This supposedly transfers your sins to the chicken, who then conveniently dies on your behalf. Our modern Worship of Eternal Progress and Technology is also saturated with ritual sacrifice.
None of this behavior is prohibited by anti-cruelty laws. Quite the opposite: The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of Santeria adherents to practice ritual animal sacrifice, saying that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
And lest the rest of us regard animal sacrifice as something that’s only practiced by uncivilized, uneducated people, we should pause for a moment. Our modern Worship of Eternal Progress and Technology is also saturated with ritual sacrifice, as millions of innocent animals are served up to our new gods of medical and scientific experimentation.
Instead of old-fashioned stone temples and gothic cathedrals, these rituals take place in shiny temples of laboratory research, in whose inner sanctums white-coated priests and priestesses go about their secret, sacred, ritualized experiments. And just as it was in Biblical times, other animals take the place of humans, and are then “sacrificed” (yes, that’s the actual word these researchers use) in the name of freeing us from our own ills and troubles.
Whether it’s sheep, goats and cows in the rituals of faraway countries, or monkeys, pigs and mice in our own temples to immortality, we tell ourselves that sacrificing other animals can help us put off the evil day of our mortality a little longer and bring us absolution from the devils that possess us.
It doesn’t work, of course. Visiting death and suffering on other living beings, however we go about it and whatever we tell ourselves about it, is never going to relieve our troubles. As the founders of the world’s major religions taught us, we can only reap what we sow.
And no rivers of blood can wash that away.