We were screaming through a Beirut suburb as bombs started to fall. Reaching the end of the road, the driver took a sharp left and came to a screeching stop as the two young Lebanese women quickly hopped out the vehicle, cages in hand and ran into the building. When they emerged a few minutes later, the cages were filled with howling dogs and a few cats.
"We have to save them," said Lena, a self-proclaimed animal-rights advocate. This was the height of the 2006 war in Lebanon and this particular area of the Beirut suburbs was completely destroyed within days. These brave women saved the animals, despite the criticism. We stopped at a makeshift animal shelter just north of the capital and a group of onlookers saw the animals. They told Lena: "You're crazy. Save people, not animals!" Lena smirked. She was used to this reaction. "Animals are important because it shows how we treat living things," she said.
Misunderstanding and dismissal of animal rights is often what activists face in the Middle East, and elsewhere. People just don't understand, rights advocates say. As one environmentalist in Egypt told me recently: "People are dealing with their own lives and poverty, so why would they worry about animals?" It's a tough sell.
As the United Nations held its first international animal rights conference on Middle East soil in Qatar last month, the region appeared to be finally getting its act together on the importance of animal rights, but there are still problems. According to Animals Lebanon, the trafficking of animals, including endangered species, is behind only weapons and drugs in the region in terms of smuggling.
At Cairo's Friday Market, visitors can buy a number of animals that would make any activist wince. Monkeys, crocodiles, hawks and numerous other endangered species are caged and waiting for the next buyer. Why? According to activists, this is because there are no laws in place, and those that are there are not enforced. "The animals fetch a high price on the black market and can be delivered to rich people across the region," one seller told me.
Why have animal rights, in light of the growing smuggling problem, not been addressed by governments, the media and ordinary people? At the heart of the matter appears to be a two-fold problem that must be overcome if groups are to encourage better treatment of animals in the Middle East. First, people simply don't care and have little information to go on. Second, groups must break through the assumption that animal rights are a western idea that has no basis in the region. History tells us otherwise. Cats were extremely well cared for and respected during pharaonic times in ancient Egypt.
Today, when activists, whether from Peta – who were laughed at when they demonstrated in front of the Australian embassy in 2006 over the condition of cattle transported from Australia to the Middle East – or homegrown, protest at the treatment of animals in Egypt, they are dismissed by locals, who see them as indulging in western ideas that have no place in the region.
Egypt's Society for Protecting the Rights of Animals in Egypt (Spare) attempted to launch a public campaign recently to educate Egyptians on the importance of animal rights. They were met with condescension and were laughed at by local governmental and independent media, said Amina Abaza, the founder of the group. "They just laughed at us, asking who cares about animals," she told me.
The idea that animal rights are a western construct needs to be reshaped if groups are to succeed in their goals. If it is western it must be bad, some believe. Many Arabs view animals as property, objectifying their existence as a means to serve people. They often cite Qur'anic verses supporting their actions. "And cattle He has created for you. From them you drive wont and numerous benefits and of their meat, you eat," (an-Nahl: 5-8), is the most often cited verse for eating animals. But the Prophet also laid down a number of restrictions on the treatment of animals. He said they must be held in respect and killed according to Islamic law. How then can there be a justification for the smuggling and poor treatment of animals across the region?
What needs to happen is an overhaul of public thought and understanding. In general, the world, including the Middle East, views animal rights activists as radicals, attempting to force people to go vegetarian. These views then result in the assumption that activists are wrong and should be ignored. Public opinion in the region is almost non-existent in terms of animal rights, despite efforts from Animals Lebanon and Spare. With all things western so often dismissed as counter to Arab thought, it is no wonder that animal rights have yet to make themselves known in the region. "Animal rights means that we should not abuse them, torture them and when we have to use them for meat, we should slaughter them with a sharp knife, mentioning the name of Allah," said Muzammil Siddiqi, the former president of the Islamic Society of North America.
Caging animals, smuggling them and treating them as property could be regarded as torture. But when international stars lash out at the treatment of animals in the region, including their slaughter, such as Brigitte Bardot's criticism of the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival, Arabs often view these outbursts as comical, arguing it is part of the religion and the way things have always been. Polygamy is also, technically, part of the religion, but most would call it archaic and unneeded. So how do these same people justify the poor treatment of animals?