This is a guest post by Sarah AB
There has been much discussion of halal slaughter following news stories featuring Subway and Pizza Express. How far it is possible or legitimate to raise this issue without shading into bigotry, even racism? While recognizing that outlawing ritual slaughter would have a major impact on many Jews and Muslims, I don’t think bigoted is the right word to describe the tough, consistently secular approach. If you really don’t think religion should be privileged in any way, then the Danish decision to ban such slaughter is a coherent one. Agriculture Minister Dan Jørgensen asserted that ‘animal rights come before religion’ and I think that’s a legitimate perspective though not one that (at least in practice) I share.
By contrast, there are many people who don’t apparently favour an outright ban, simply clearer labelling, whose approach seems tendentious, if not bigoted. Although it seems odd to describe an Imam as a bigot, I’d argue that Taj Hargey’s recent article in the Mail might have the effect of stoking prejudice. His first proposition gets the reader nodding along – who could disagree with it? It’s in the third sentence that problems begin to emerge.
When I walk into a restaurant, I’m usually a hungry customer. It shouldn’t be important to the waiter what my religion is. I could be a Muslim, a Christian or a Jedi warrior. Whatever my beliefs, I have a right to enjoy my meal without any hidden agendas.
‘Hidden agendas’ is a very loaded way of describing what’s been going on here. Pizza Express hadn’t made it absolutely clear that it uses halal chicken – but neither had it kept it a secret. As it’s pre-stunned anyway, this labelling shortfall doesn’t seem such a big deal. Perhaps we should demand labels saying things like ‘the chicken in your meal was killed after going through a constant-voltage, multiple-bird, electrical water-bath stun system.’ The idea that halal proliferation is part of some sinister ‘hidden agenda’ feeds bigotry without really being evidenced. And don’t forget that many Muslims also had no idea Pizza Express used halal chicken.
Hargey then complains that there is much unlabelled halal meat in supermarkets. There’s nothing inherently bigoted in asking for more information to be provided, and unlabelled hindquarter kosher meat should certainly also be labelled if we are to go down that road, particularly as shechita doesn’t permit pre-stunning. But then he says:
This is covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism making its way into Britain by the back door.
That sentence might be earned in a discussion of the Birmingham schools controversy, but here it just seems like halal hysteria. He then observes:
It’s unfair to everyone, non-Muslims and Muslims alike. It’s deception on a grand scale for the former, while it could fuel bitter resentment against the latter.
There are indeed times when it is both morally and strategically correct for Muslims to articulate criticism of their own community. Mehdi Hasan’s article on Muslim antisemitism is an obvious example. But when discussing the much more trivial issue of halal, Hargey seems to play his own part in fuelling, quite unnecessarily, more of the resentment he apparently deplores.
Although he concedes that Muslims have a right to choose halal meat, he immediately embarks on a long discussion in which he sets out to demonstrate that there is no religious requirement to insist on a different slaughter method. This seems out of line with mainstream Muslim opinion. It would be worth making a case for some really illiberal practice being unislamic – e.g. penalties for apostasy – even if you were battling against the majority. But Hargey just seems to be encouraging still more intolerance against even the most liberal and secular Muslims. Here’s another troubling passage:
But if the Koran does not insist on what have become the customary halal methods, why are they now so prevalent in Britain? One reason is that religious zealots and theological ideologues are deliberately promoting confusion about halal to sow discord and resentment. … [T]he extremists’ insistence that animals today should be killed in exactly the way that they were back then isn’t just cruel and bizarre, it is grotesquely hypocritical.
Although of course there are real reasons to worry about the influence of fundamentalist sects, the Deobandi for example, I remain unconvinced that Chicken Cottage is part of a Wahhabi plot. However the Mail’s readers loved this piece, and wonder why other Muslims can’t all be as sensible as Taj Hargey.