Animals and the Arab conscience: Do animals have rights?

Animals and the Arab conscience: Do animals have rights?
4 min read
07 Jul, 2015
Comment: Animal rights are too often overlooked in the Arab world, or dismissed as "a Western thing". But animal welfare should be recognised as a worthy issue, says Karim Traboulsi.
Overworked and underappreciated, donkeys in Egypt suffer in silence...sometimes [Getty]
For many Arabs, Animal welfare and animal rights has little relevance to the Arab world.

It is "a Western cause", like gay marriage and women's issues. Human rights, they believe, should come first.

Animal rights activists, likewise, are often seen as misguided radicals, both in the Arab countries and the rest of the world.

There is merit in the view that some in the West and Israel are more concerned about the rights of animals in the Middle East than the rights of its people to freedom, dignity, and self-determination. But their dismissal of Arabs, their welfare and interests is again not a strong argument against caring for animals.

Human rights and animal rights go hand in hand, especially if we see the issue not from the angle of political priorities, but from the angle of ethics and compassion. Studies consistently show that animals are much more sentient than we ever imagined them to be - meaning they suffer both physically and emotionally.

The Arab world is by no means the worst when it comes to animal welfare, but there is a problem and it is multifaceted. Many Arabs see animals as property and not as conscious beings, a misconception that makes cruelty to them easier.

Human rights and animal rights go hand in hand when viewed from the angle of ethics and compassion.
In urban settings, this particularly affects dogs, cats, horses, and donkeys - especially strays.

From children torturing cats or using them as toys on the streets, to municipalities shooting stray dogs - and allegedly using their carcasses to produce fertiliser - are common practices in many Middle Eastern cities.

Aside from cruelty, there is also negligence. There seems to be little awareness regarding the importance of spaying and vaccinating stray animals for the sake of humans themselves.

Farm and work animals, including camels and falcons, probably fare better - if only for practical reasons. In any case, there are few laws against animal cruelty, and even those are poorly enforced.

Another problem is the illegal trade in wildlife. Keeping wild and exotic animals as pets is common in some Arab countries, and poorly regulated zoos where animals live in appalling conditions have sprung up everywhere.

Signs of hope

This is not to say that there have not been any recent improvements. The number of animal clinics and welfare centres in cities including Cairo, Beirut, and Amman has grown significantly over the past decade. There are indications of a link between the number of expatriates and affluent Arabs, and better attitudes toward animal companions and pets.

Animal groups in some Arab countries are performing commendable work to both shelter and manage animals, and alter laws and harmful popular attitudes. In Lebanon, an historic animal welfare law should be passed soon, though the country's chronic political problems could delay it further.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia adopted animal welfare guidelines to crack down on abuse.

Arab governments are doing more to combat the illegal trade in wildlife, and signing up to relevant international animal welfare conventions. Ultimately, however, the source of the problem in human-animal relations in the Arab world is one of popular attitudes and culture.

Religion provides a strong foundation for the promotion of animal welfare.
Groups such as the Animals and Society Institute (ASI) have a
few good programmes on how this could be addressed from childhood.

Apart from approaching the issue from the standpoints of ethics, compassion, and empathy, ASI also suggests the quality of human-animal relations profoundly affects things such as the economy, development, the environment, and even human violence - which is arguably a problem in most Arab countries.

Religion provides a strong foundation for the promotion of animal welfare. Islam, the religion of a majority of Arabs, sets forth very detailed instructions on animal welfare, from the humane slaughter of animals for food to banning the killing of animals for sport - at a time when Britain is still debating fox hunting.

However, the Islamic view of animals as beings created to serve humans, and of animals such as dogs and pigs as impure, are often misinterpreted as a licence for cruelty.

To those Arabs who dismiss animal rights as "not a priority" for people who are suffering from poverty, oppression and conflict, remember that animals are also affected by this suffering.

When the US invaded Iraq, even the once-famous zoo in Baghdad was not spared from US bombing. And during the Syrian revolution, regime soldiers reportedly carried out a massacre against donkeys belonging to rebels.

Who says a person cannot and should not care for both people and animals?

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.