Halal: not about food but fear of difference
David Cameron went to Nando's last week. His startled fellow diners in Bristol's Park Street branch reported that he feasted on half a chicken with regular fries and coleslaw, accompanied with a glass of red wine. We don't know whether the chicken was halal or not, although on its website Nando's states that 34 of its 314 restaurants in the UK currently serve halal-only meat, so it is certainly possible. Let's assume for the moment that the prime minister's peri-peri chicken was indeed halal.
Here was a man who, some weeks previously, had declared that we should be "more confident about our status as a Christian country" eating meat that had been slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines ("Halal" is Arabic for "permissible").
This would have meant that the animal in question was pre-stunned, then slit across the throat to be drained of blood. A Muslim prayer would have been recited as the animal died. Does it matter? Yes. But not for the reasons you might think. The recent debate about the provenance of our meat in supermarkets and restaurant chains has resulted in the generation of an enormous amount of air hotter than Cameron's peri-peri sauce. Opponents to the introduction of unlabelled halal meat on our pizzas or in our chicken buckets have three main points of contention. First, they cite concerns on religious grounds – what if a Jewish, a Catholic or an atheist consumer would prefer not to eat meat that has been given a Muslim blessing? What about the Sikhs, whose beliefs specifically proscribe the consumption of halal meat? Second, they put the case for animal welfare.
Isn't it barbaric to slit an animal by the throat? Lastly, there is the existential anxiety that those nebulous, oft-trumpeted "British values" are somehow under threat; that supermarket chains are attempting to get one over on us; that corporations are catering to a growing Muslim population to the exclusion of the rest of us and that we should be able to choose whether we want our lamb chops religiously blessed. Do these arguments hold water? It is perfectly possible that adherents to non-Muslim religions would prefer to eat non-halal meat.
I can understand why there is a case to be made for clearer labelling so that consumers can make an informed choice. But, as for welfare, we are kidding ourselves if we think that halal slaughter is somehow more barbaric than other forms. According to the Food Standards Agency, 88% of halal meat in the UK comes from animals that have been stunned before slaughter. In fact, there is no technical difference between the methods used to produce most halal meat and mainstream methods of slaughter. A good Christian abattoir will still use stunning by firing a metal bolt or an electrical current into the brain of the animal. Chickens are routinely hung upside down by their legs on metal shackles along a moving conveyor belt towards a water bath: when the bird's head makes contact with the water, an electrical circuit between the fluid and the shackle is completed and shocks the bird into unconsciousness. The conveyor belt then moves on to a mechanical neck cutter, which slices through the major blood vessels.
Many poultry are now also killed in giant gas chambers. Is that any more comforting? I've always suspected that professional abattoirs aren't the most touchy-feely of places. If you eat meat, you have to acknowledge that the animal on your plate was, at some point, killed for your consumption. Of course, certain basic welfare standards should be upheld. And yes, a case can be made for labels that state whether an animal has been pre-stunned or not. But, ultimately, it's up to you to evaluate whether slaughtering an animal in any form can ever truly be considered humane. In this context, the halal debate is irrelevant. It is the third argument that holds the key.
The fuss over halal meat stems from a fear of otherness. It comes from an anxiety that we are being "taken over", that our green and pleasant land is in danger of being overrun by people who are in some crucial, dangerous way Not Like Us. In truth, Muslims represent just 4.8% of the British population but eat 12% to 15% of all meat consumed.
Supermarket halal makes simple consumerist sense. But when the halal meat farrago was initially reported, it was described in sinister terms as "a stealthy takeover". The British National Party was quick to leap on the opportunity to denounce "the horror and barbarity of the alien practice". According to the BNP website, the stocking of halal meat in supermarkets was an "obvious erosion of our traditions and customs". Halal slaughter was akin to "stoning to death and beheadings" and belonged to "another century and another place". We are in the grip of a moral panic about Islam.
Muslims have become, like single mothers or benefit scroungers before them, a totemic symbol of our nastiest fears. As with all forms of prejudice, it is insidious, lurking in the shadows like noxious gas. But it is there if you look for it, if you are attuned to the vocabulary. The term "takeover" is used again and again – in Birmingham, for instance, where 25 schools are currently being investigated amid allegations of a "hardline Islamist plot" even though the leader of Birmingham City Council is on record as saying he believes no such plot exists. It is there when newspapers run snidely worded articles on Muhammad being a popular boy's name and it is there when fears are whipped up of a "Muslim majority" existing by 2050. We should not conflate one issue (the provenance of our meat) with something much more unpleasant (our fear of otherness). Because for all the professed concern around what it means to eat halal meat, there is a deeper, more menacing undertow to the national debate. And that is the most unpalatable thing of all.
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