The Halal hullabaloo

Without unduly trivialising the underlying issue – for there are valid arguments on both sides – it can be seen at a glance that many of the more populist objections have little, if anything, to do with the animal rights aspect of the controversy

Comments made by Imam Muhammed El Sadi in a recent TVM interview seem to have once again provoked a social media furore.

The Imam was asked specifically about his views on the Islamic, scriptural tradition of ‘halal’ meat: a method of slaughter that uses a well-sharpened knife to slit the animal’s jugular vein, so that the blood drains fully before the meat is cut. The head of the slaughtered animal is made to face the direction of Mecca. A prayer is usually uttered during the ritual. In its strictest form, the halal method requires the animal to be conscious at the moment of slaughter. There are other rules which are not always observed, such as the animal not being slaughtered in the presence of other animals.

Being both a Muslim and the spiritual leader of Malta’s Islamic community, it is only natural that El Sadi would defend this practice, which many people – raised in different cultures – may find abhorrent or repulsive. So far, so good. Yet when the Imam also revealed that he had submitted a request to government for the halal ritual being allowed to be practised in Malta, all hell broke loose. The request was interpreted as an attempt to ‘impose’ Islamic culture onto Catholic Malta; and for a brief (but ironic) moment, the same people who once organised a public ‘majjalata’ to protest against Islamic influence, joined forces with vegetarians and animal rights activists to express outrage at the halal proposal.

Without unduly trivialising the underlying issue – for there are valid arguments on both sides – it can be seen at a glance that many of the more populist objections have little, if anything, to do with the animal rights aspect of the controversy. It is admittedly difficult to justify the slaughter of any animal under conditions many would consider ‘primitive’. But it is no easier to defend the ‘civilised’ practice of battery chicken farms, or the transportation of live animals, or the treatment of cows on dairy farms… or even the regulated, State-sanctioned slaughter that takes place, under supervised conditions, at the national abattoir.

We can point towards the practice of ‘stunning’ an animal, to minimise physical pain, as an insurance policy against charges of animal cruelty, or even to assuage our own guilt. But while it is possibly ‘kinder’ to stun an animal before slaughtering it… we cannot escape the natural, inherent cruelty of the act in itself.

Still – as it turns out, the halal ritual is already allowed inside the national abattoir for a select amount of animals, only that the animal is first stunned and then finally slaughtered; the Imam says a certain segment of Malta’s Muslims want the animal to be slaughtered without being stunned.

Reducing the pain as much as possible is a noble pursuit; but unless we can also eliminate the trauma faced by an animal as it is led to the slaughter, we can never really talk about a ‘kind’ way to kill.

This, on its own, is reason enough for many millions of people around the world to become vegetarians (regardless of any religious or cultural influence). But if that is the concern underpinning public reactions to the Imam’s comments… it applies just as much to all forms of meat, bought and sold at all butchers or supermarkets. It is certainly not exclusive to the ‘halal’ or ‘kosher’ method.

On a more practical level, the response seems to ignore the established reality that halal slaughter is already practised in Malta, and has been for years. It may surprise many of the objectors to discover that they themselves might often unwittingly consume halal meat when they order kebabs from a Turkish kebab house (of which there is no shortage in Malta at the moment). There are even Islamic butchers who openly advertise halal meat.

Clearly, then, the objection is not specifically targeted at the practice in itself; but rather at the Imam’s apparent attempt to – in the eyes of many – ‘sanction’ the practice through legal channels. This initiative, it seems, was received as the ‘thin end of the wedge’: or to paraphrase one online comment out of several: If it’s halal today, it will be polygamy and the public execution of adulteresses/apostates tomorrow.

It is unfortunate that local discussion always veers so far to the extremes of any issue. For one thing, not all the practices/traditions observed in different Muslim countries arise directly out of Islam in itself. Halal is one that does, as it stems from verses in the Koran; polygamy, on the other hand, is both a cultural and scriptural phenomenon. In any case, all such customs and practices vary from region to region of the Islamic world.

And anyway, what concerns the slaughter of animals does not necessarily lead to a discussion of human values or practices.

It bears mentioning also that halal slaughter is already sanctioned – with varying restrictions – in several EU member states. One might agree or disagree; but the Imam’s request, in itself, is nothing unusual by European standards. Nor is it in any way unhealthy to have a national discussion on such issues; on the contrary, it is to be expected.

At the end of the day, there is an additional irony involved here: it is precisely because the European Union – whose values we believe we share – permits and encourages freedom of religion, that the Imam was free to make his request in the first place. European values demand that such requests be treated seriously.

To date, however, there has been far more misplaced hysteria and furore than seriousness in the ‘halal’ hullaballoo.