Halal, is it meat you’re looking for? Much as I’d like to, I can’t claim credit for that gag, a Lionel Richie parody given a new airing this week alongside the hashtag #halalhysteria, as British Muslims once again found their dietary customs at the centre of a moral panic. Other minorities have learned that same survival strategy when a collective finger is pointed menacingly in their direction: better to laugh, otherwise you’ll cry.
Besides, laughter feels an appropriate response when Radio 4’s Today programme reports on the discovery that supermarkets and high-street restaurant chains have been serving halal food to unwitting, non-Muslim customers by asking if this is on a par with the horsemeat scandal. How else but with a chuckle should we react to the Sun headline “Halal secret of Pizza Express,” revealing information so classified it had previously only appeared on the Pizza Express website?
But perhaps we should not be flippant. Perhaps we should accept that the source of the alarm is no more than a noble concern for animal welfare, as non-Muslims worry that they are inadvertently eating meat whose passage from farm to plate has involved needless cruelty.
If this is hard to accept it’s partly because, as Giles Fraser argues, , death is the least of it: if the Mail and Sun were concerned about welfare, they would be exposing the desperate state of animals’ lives long before they are slaughtered. Yet that kind of ill treatment passes without a murmur. But they don’t.
Even if it’s animal-killing that’s the point, here too the concern is curious. For what’s presented as the crucial welfare issue is whether the animal is stunned before its throat is cut – and 90% of halal meat is indeed “pre-stunned”. In other words, the halal meat that has sneaked its way on to the shelves at Tesco or Morrisons, or the menu at Subway, is no different to – and no more cruelly produced than – the rest of the food on offer.
In which case, something else is at work here. What might it be that explains this recurrent angst about halal’s presence in the national food supply? And, make no mistake, it is recurrent. “Top supermarkets secretly sell halal: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S don’t tell us meat is ritually slaughtered” was a Daily Mail headline in September 2010, the wording almost identical to the story it led with on Thursday.
A clue comes from across the Channel. Emboldened by victories in this spring’s local elections, the Front National party of Marine Le Pen has moved to ban state schools from serving halal and kosher food in the 11French towns it now rules. No longer will there be an alternative when pork is on the menu. Instead, Muslim and Jewish children will be faced with a choice: eat pig or go hungry. Le Pen doesn’t claim to be acting for animal welfare but rather for the sake of secularism. Not many are fooled. Food is the weapon, but the goal is surely to isolate and intimidate France’s Muslim and Jewish communities. Encapsulating the atmosphere, the FN mayor of Hayanges has proposed a “pork fest” to “liven up” the town.
Elsewhere – in Denmark, Belgium and Finland – pork has been used in the same way, to taunt and threaten those deemed alien. It’s not new: I remember the shock felt at the synagogue of my boyhood when a pig’s head was attached to the railings. But it is nasty.
Food wars have tended to take a different form here. I spoke with the governor of one inner London school who told me no issue had been more “toxic” than the proposal by a group of Muslim parents that all meat served at lunchtime be halal. Over half the pupils at the school are Muslim, but the non-Muslim parents objected passionately. They didn’t worry that halal was cruel. Their fear was that by serving halal they’d be branded a “Muslim school”.
There is a huge difference between the reaction of those non-Muslim parents (or those alarmed by halal chicken at Nando’s) and the venom of Le Pen and her mayors. In Britain, those objecting are saying: “We can tolerate special arrangements for Muslims and others – but not if we have to change our own habits.” In France and elsewhere, the far right are saying, “We will not tolerate special arrangements for anybody – on the contrary, we will force Muslims and others to live like us.”
These are different stances and should not be conflated. The first is a declaration of the limits of multiculturalism: up to here and no further. The second is a declaration of war on multiculturalism, a refusal to accept difference at all. Nevertheless, there are few grounds for smugness on Britons’ part. For even that limited tolerance is under strain. The undertone to this week’s halal shock stories, with their lurid talk of “ritual slaughter”, is a kind of dog whistle – a pig whistle, says one observer – to those already whipped up by Ukip talk of immigration and foreign languages on commuter trains: a summons to believe the country is changing out of all recognition, becoming alien and no longer “ours”.
What’s more, there are those who would go further than stopping halal chicken being covertly available at KFC. They would deny strictly observant Muslims and Jews from having religiously approved meat at all. The new head of the British Veterinary Association wants to follow Denmark’s lead and stop all slaughter that does not involve pre-stunning: that would bar the strictest halal and all kosher meat. He says “an outright ban” is not a long way off.
It’s gratifying that Muslim and Jewish groups, often at odds, have come together on this issue. But so far their arguments have tended to be on welfare grounds, either noting that much of halal does involve pre-stunning or arguing that the kosher method, an instant cut using a surgical instrument, itself counts as stunning by rendering the animal insensible to pain. These advocates argue forcefully that it is non-halal and non-kosher slaughter – stunning animals by electrocution, gassing or a bolt to the brain – that is truly cruel.
Still, I can’t help feeling this is dodging the core issue. We know that this week’s furore is less about animal welfare than it is about the strains of a fast-changing, ever more diverse society. The response should be on those terms, too. Muslims, Jews and all those who value a varied, plural society need to have the confidence to argue that yes, animal welfare matters – but so too do inclusion and religious freedom. We don’t want animals to suffer, but nor do we want to inflict the pain of ostracism and exclusion on minorities. We are judged by how we treat animals but also by how we treat people, especially those who are different from the rest.