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Jun 11, 2021
13 Min read time
Food is becoming a target for anti-Islam politics.
Last October, while waging the government’s new campaign against Islamic forms of “separatism,” French Interior minister Gérald Darmanin complained on television that he was frequently “shocked” to enter a supermarket and see a shelf of “communalist food” (cuisine communautaire).
There is a growing, broadly European complaint that halal food divides citizens, violates norms of animal welfare, and stealthily intrudes Islam into Western society.
Darmanin later expanded on his remarks, clarifying that he does not deny that people have a right to eat halal and kosher products (the “communalist foods” in question). He does, however, regret that capitalist profit-seekers advertised foods intended only for one segment of society in such a public way, and, even worse, in food shops patronized by all sorts of people. This, he contended, weakened the Republic by encouraging “separatism.” Of course, despite the intentional vagueness of the term “communalist,” few would have thought that the Minister had kosher pizzas in mind. Rather, he was signaling his annoyance at the myriad ways that—after hijabs in schools and on Decathalon jogging outfits—Muslims were again publicly holding back on their commitment to the Republic.
Darmanin’s remarks are but one version of a growing, broadly European complaint that halal food divides citizens, violates norms of animal welfare, and stealthily intrudes Islam into Western society. This complaint, and the measures that have begun to follow, shift depending on the post-colonial and anti-Islamic politics in each country. On this issue, politics is at once local, regional, and global. But why has access to religiously appropriate food assumed such political importance across Europe?
• • •
Spotlight on Halal
This was not always the case. When the first waves of Muslim immigrants arrived in Europe after World War II, they had few ways of assuring that their food was halal. They avoided pork, perhaps bought their meat from a local Muslim butcher, and recited a blessing before eating. But by the 1980s, a new generation of Muslims was coming of age. This generation was less likely to live in immigrant circles, and they were eager to try the same foods as their Dutch, French, or British schoolmates. Some of them were learning about Islam in intellectual spaces, by attending lectures given by famous preachers or visiting Islamic web sites, and some sought greater assurance that the food they bought was produced according to the rules of halal.
Muslim scholars hold that killing an animal should be done in as painless a manner as is possible. But the rules of halal certification have not always been easily defined.
Not that such rules were clearly defined. As economic and religious entrepreneurs responded to this demand, they sometimes found themselves in uncharted territory. Pork was forbidden, but what if contact with pork had occurred but left no discernible trace? How would one know if halal beef had come into contact with non-halal beef? And what about GMOs? Or animals raised in terrible conditions? Eventually some Muslims questioned other kinds of foods as well: cheeses, for example, and the enzymes used to make them. As new private audit bodies arose to certify food items as halal, they often found themselves having to improvise. One major halal audit body told me recently, “if they want us to certify a halal toilet, we’ll figure it out!” (They did, and it came down to which chemicals were used for cleaning.) While these debates occurred among Muslims, they attracted little public attention. However, there was one issue pertaining to halal that had long been publicly contentious: stunning animals before slaughter.
Muslim scholars hold that killing an animal should be done in as painless a manner as is possible. This involves a trained man with a sharp knife and should occur with a blessing that, in the hearing of the animal, invokes God’s name; for some, the animal thereby learns that the killing is a sacrifice. As with the similar Jewish kosher (shehita) method, it is preferred that the animal be conscious for another, practical reason as well: the animal more fully bleeds out. This is in accord with the rule, shared by the two religions, of not consuming blood. Animal welfare activists in Europe have condemned this manner of killing on the grounds that the animal suffers needlessly because it is not stunned before the cutting.
Netherlands and Animals
Stunning is a particularly controversial topic in the Netherlands, where it has been up for debate for over a century. The 1919 Meat Inspection Act prohibited slaughter without prior stunning, but it granted an exemption to Jews when making kosher food available to their local community as a religiously defined and spatially delimited “pillar” in a consciously segmented society. By the 1930s, however, there was a greater availability of stunning techniques, which gave new force to those who opposed kosher slaughter because of animal welfare. When unstunned slaughter was prohibited under Nazi occupation, the Dutch chief rabbis allowed stunning as a fallback measure.
Ritual slaughter is no longer an issue between Christians and Jews, nor Muslims, nor among cultural groups; it is a tension between religious and secular outlooks.
Post-war rules in the Netherlands continued to restrict kosher slaughter to local Jewish communities, and only if the community could show that they needed a certain quantity of meat (as in the case of kosher-certified food exports to Israel today). The only strong opposition to granting these exemptions came from the conservative Reformed Protestant SGP party, which argued that the Netherlands was a Protestant country. As Muslims arrived and began to carry out slaughter on their own and often in secret, officials moved to regulate the practice. In the rhetoric that emerged after the 1960s, though, the government shifted its stance; allowing Muslims and Jews to practice their rituals was part of how the “guiding nation” could develop a “multicultural society.” These extensions received broad support from the social democratic and liberal parties.
But by the twenty-first century the blocs began to shift. No longer was this an issue between Christians and Jews, nor Muslims (now pulled into the controversy), nor among cultural groups; it was a tension between religious and secular outlooks. The same Christian groups that had once opposed ritual slaughter in the name of a Protestant Dutch nation now supported its allowance as a matter of religious liberty. On the other side of the controversy were the growing far-right parties, following Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, and new social movements. When, in 2006, the new Party for the Animals entered Parliament, it sponsored bills to end the practice. Their leader, Marianne Thieme, started a campaign to pressure the large food chain Albert Heijn to stop selling halal meat. She argued that even slaughterhouses in the Dutch southern Bible Belt region, motivated only by profit, were slaughtering without stunning to “dedicate their veal to Allah,” leaving Dutch people to consume halal food without knowing it. Even though approximately 80 percent of halal slaughter in the Netherlands uses stunning, her campaign generalized all halal slaughter as unstunned, an equation that appears to be broadly accepted by the Dutch public.
Dutch politics make it relatively easy for small parties to gain a fair degree of political influence due to the still effective tradition of polderen compromise (a reference to older norms of local collaboration followed in order to create new farmland through building dikes). One-issue parties often succeed in drawing attention to their causes in Parliament, especially when many parties hold seats. The Party for the Animals is a textbook example of this possibility; they made good political headway over the course of the 2010s in their campaign for an end to ritual slaughter. Many Dutch progressives had simultaneously turned away from advocating for multiculturalism and toward searching for a new version of Dutch identity based on rights—for women, for the LGBTQ community, and why not for animals as well?
As the various interest groups clashed over the issue of stunning, the government brought them together to engage in polderen. The outcome was a 2012 “covenant” that allowed the exemption for killing animals without stunning for ritual slaughter and also allowed the export of such meat.
Animal welfare activists in Europe have condemned this manner of killing on the grounds that the animal suffers needlessly because it is not stunned before the cutting.
But the pressure continued from the political right. In July 2017 the Dutch government, representatives of slaughterhouses, and Muslim and Jewish leaders concluded an addendum to their original agreement which established rules for ritual slaughter. The addendum requires that if an animal that has been killed without stunning has not lost consciousness within forty seconds of slaughter it must then be stunned. It also states that ritual slaughter can only be allowed insofar as it is “necessary to meet the actual needs of the local religious community in the Netherlands,” thereby effectively banning the export of such meat.
In the absence of new legislation, it is unclear to what degree the agreement has changed practices. Most of the major players in the halal meat market already carried out stunning. Some halal audit services, now serving as promoters of the practice, began to seek agreements with slaughterhouses elsewhere in Europe. In addition, it was difficult for those halal actors with whom I spoke to imagine waiting forty seconds after slaughter before proceeding given the tempo of the cutting lines.
Of greater interest, perhaps, is how the new agreement responded to deep-seated political concerns; it offered a Dutch solution to a thorny problem. First, it portrayed religious-minded Jewish and Muslim consumers as members of geographically definable local communities, whose needs provided the only legitimate excuse for unstunned killing; a slaughterhouse would need to obtain a statement from a religious leader that a certain quantity of such meat was necessary (a clause that reproduces the 1930s limiting of kosher methods to Jewish neighborhoods). The government reinforced the pillar concept of religious freedom. And second, the solution was presented as an agreement, a covenant between all the affected parties. Never mind that Muslim advocates of unstunned ritual slaughter were not invited; it was enough that there were some Muslims and Jews signing the agreement.
Thereafter, food production firms told the halal auditors they had hired that they must prove that the birds were alive right up to the moment when they were killed. This would both allow those firms to claim that they had met the generally accepted rules for halal and that the animals were stunned effectively—so as to satisfy those groups who deem failure to stun cruel. Now, auditors in the Netherlands must apply “the test of life.” For a Dutch business seeking to export to a Muslim-majority country, the auditor must prove that the animals are conscious when they are killed. Indeed, in certifying meat for export, this is one of the two most important demonstrations of halal status—the other being the absence of pollution by non-halal. When I shadowed a halal auditor working for a Dutch audit firm, he had assembled an array of devices, with meter readings, tests, and even electricity tables written by Malaysian importers. He understands and evaluates his practices as both ethically motivated and practically geared to the importer’s criteria, and sometimes also to the higher-status criteria of international third-party auditors.
The United Kingdom and the Ethnic Market
Compare this to the United Kingdom, where halal auditors do not have the same state-imposed burdens. Stunning and non-stunning options are broadly available, and there is nothing comparable to the strong public and private divide that characterizes France. The UK government has largely assimilated rules regarding halal food production to other, non-religious regulations, ensuring food safety and investigating claims of fraud. This mostly owes to the spread of Mad Cow Disease from the 1990s, which led to a strong concern with establishing meat provenance.
If France fears the socially divisive effects of publicizing halal, the UK fears failing to do so.
Indeed, public outcry regarding halal food in the UK often targets labeling, or lack thereof. If France fears the socially divisive effects of publicizing halal, the UK fears failing to do so, worried that unlabeled halal products suggest that Muslims are stealthily infiltrating the UK by means of Muslim food. Halal worries have never been absent from post-colonial criticisms of new British citizens, starting notably with the 1984 Honeyford Affair, in which a middle-school head in Bradford complained about serving halal food at school (as well as the long vacations that immigrant families took to see kin in Punjab or Kashmir). Animal rights groups and the far right echoed his complaint, emphasizing the inability of multiculturalism to promote assimilation.
In 1994 accusations that lax labeling meant that Britons were eating halal without knowing it led the government to create the Halal Food Authority. Nine years later discoveries of pork in food sold as halal gave rise to an independent body, the Halal Monitoring Committee (HMC), in Leicester. This body is defined by three features. First, the HMC built on the strong commercial network of Gujarati speakers who sojourned in East Africa before finding a more stable home in the UK. Second, they set out to evaluate the halal status of substances by marrying self-styled rigorous application of fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, to chemical analyses. Third, they reshaped the process of certification as a way of recruiting into and maintaining a diasporic and ethnic-specific network based on marketing advice and a sense of partnership. That these networks became the major pathways for communication and control would have been anathema in France; in the UK it shows the strengths of post-colonial British society.
• • •
To Each Her Own Halal Worry
If halal worries provide useful ammunition for anti-Islamic politics across Europe, they also highlight the diversity of post-colonial politics. French politicians can evoke aspirations toward Republican public space devoid of signs of separatism to castigate supermarkets for showcasing their halal products. At least since the mid-2000s, French officials have charged corner shops that stocked only halal meat with discriminating against non-Muslims. In 2016 one mayor went a step further, ordering a Good Price mini market to either sell alcohol and pork or shut down, lest the absence of those products be taken to imply that there were such things as Muslim neighborhoods. All the while, in the UK and the Netherlands catering to the needs of such neighborhoods is precisely what justifies the increased activity around producing, certifying, and sometimes exporting halal products
These accusations can be used to bolster diverse forms of anti-Muslim movements, shaped specifically to the rhetorical expectations in each European country.
Across Europe opposition to halal production is growing. The easiest target is the religious exemption granted in many countries to bans on killing without stunning. In the past few years, a number of northern states abolished the exemption. Crucially, last December the European Court of Justice ruled that member states may do away with such exemptions on grounds that requiring stunning limits religious freedom but is “proportional to the objective” of promoting animal welfare.
Beyond the legal issues, halal worries provide a politically useful focus for anti-Islam politicians. Precisely because of the fuzziness of most accusations—how is stocking those foods your regular customers want a form of Islamic separatism? How is it that allowing a small minority of butchers to practice halal slaughter implies the “Islamization” of Europe? —they can be used to bolster diverse forms of anti-Muslim movements, shaped specifically to the rhetorical expectations in each European country. Moreover, this allows these accusations to meet few obstacles: after all, how can anyone oppose animal welfare, national unity, and truth in advertising—particularly when these laudable goals can be used to conceal a deeper animus.
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