Mehdi Hasan: Halal Hysteria

On the politics of “halal hysteria” in the UK and beyond:

by Mehdi Hasan (New Statesman)

I am sitting in one of London’s finest Indian restaurants, Benares, in the heart of Mayfair. I’ve just placed an order for the “Tandoori Ratan” mixed-grill appetiser – a trio of fennel lamb chop, chicken cutlet and king prawn.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m pretty excited. Most of the upmarket restaurants in London do not cater for the city’s burgeoning Muslim population. Benares is one of the few exceptions: all of the lamb and chicken dishes on its menu are halal.

The restaurant opened in 2003 and its owner, Atul Kochhar, is a Michelin-starred chef. “Right from day one, we’ve kept our lamb and chicken halal,” Kochhar says. “It was a very conscious decision because I grew up in India, a secular country, where I was taught to have respect for all religions.” Kochhar, who is a Hindu, says Muslims make up “easily between 10 and 20 per cent” of his regular diners. It isn’t just a taste for religious pluralism that has dictated the contents of his menu; serving halal meat makes commercial, as well as cultural, sense.

To other, perhaps less tolerant types, however, the rise of halal meat in the west and here in the UK, in particular, is a source of tension, controversy, fear and loathing. British Muslims are living through a period of halal hysteria, a moral panic over our meat. First there came 9/11, 7/7 and the “Islamic” terror threat; then there was the row over the niqab (face veil) and hijab (headscarf); now, astonishingly, it’s the frenzy over halal meat.

Last month, MPs in the Commons rejected a ten-minute-rule bill that would have made it mandatory for retailers to label all of the halal and kosher meat on sale and make it clear on the packaging that the animals were “killed without stunning”. The bill’s proponent, the Tory backbencher Philip Davies, claimed that the meat was being “forced upon” shoppers “without their knowledge”. It was defeated by the narrowest of margins – 73 votes to 70.

As is so often the case, the right-wing press is behind much of the fear-mongering and misinformation. “Britain goes halal . . . but no one tells the public,” screamed the front-page headline in the Mail on Sunday on 19 September 2010. The paper claimed that supermarkets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, pubs and big sporting venues such as Wembley Stadium were “controversially serving up meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law to unwitting members of the public”.

The following week, readers were treated to two more stories suggesting a sinister plot to inflict halal meat on innocent, animal-loving, non-Muslim Britons. “How 70 per cent of New Zealand lamb imports to Britain are halal . . . but this is NOT put on the label”, said the Daily Mail on 25 September 2010. “Top supermarkets secretly sell halal: Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and M&S don’t tell us meat is ritually slaughtered,” proclaimed the Mail on Sunday the next day.

With the threat from terrorism receding, Britain’s Islam-baiters have jumped on the anti-halal bandwagon, and not just the neo-fascists of the British National Party and the English Defence League, which has a page on its website devoted to its (anti-) “halal campaign”, but mainstream commentators, too. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle – who once wrote a column entitled “Islamophobia? Count me in” – has demanded that halal meat be banned and called for a boycott of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and the rest until they agree to stop stocking halal products. “I will buy no meat from supermarkets,” he wrote, rather melodramatically, back in 2010.

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