The Religious Politics of Meat 2: Halal and Kosher meat in Europe

by indonotes

Rows about Halal and Kosher meat in a number of countries Europe reflect shared anxieties but also differing circumstances.

The focus of this blog is all things Indonesian. However, reading about moves to close pig farms in West Java reminded me of some news stories that I had read about the regulation of Halal and Kosher meat in Europe. Furthermore, the Islamic press in Indonesia often carries stories about Islam abroad, and the arguments in Europe about ritually slaughtered meat have not gone unnoticed.

The key controversy has focused around whether animals can be slaughtered without pre-stunning, but issues around labelling and some institutions serving exclusively Halal meat have also raised hackles. In Germany in 2002 following a case brought by a Muslim Butcher, the constitutional court caused controversy by extending religious exceptions to the requirement to stun animals before slaughter. The debate picked up in 2011 when the Dutch Parliament voted to ban the slaughter of animals without pre-stunning. Then, in 2012 Halal meat became a hot topic during the French election when it emerged that thousands of tons of halal meat had been sold to the general public without being labelled as such.

The issue combines concerns about animal welfare, questions of religious freedom and anxieties over immigration and integration. From the animal welfare perspective, recent research has strengthened the argument that animals slaughtered by having their throat without stunning feel more pain than if they are stunned first. However, the controversies across Europe should also be seen in the context of rows about a range of manifestations of Muslim piety (whether minarets, headscarves or praying on the street). Whilst animal welfare groups have raised the profile of the issue, it is notable that far right parties have been quick to jump on the issue. Whether Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, or the British National Party. Moreover, those closer to the mainstream have also taken up the issue. In the UK the Daily Mail (with a circulation of around 2 million) has carried excitable stories about halal meat being sold without being labelled and during the French election Nicolas Sarkozy climbed on the halal-meat bandwagon in an effort to outflank the National Front.

However, despite there being common themes here, it is important to recognise that there are also differences in the contexts of the different European countries. Slaughtering practices vary greatly: in some countries most Halal cattle slaughter takes without pre stunning, in Britain it is only a quarter. For example, patterns of integration of Muslim minorities vary for reasons including demography, historical (sometime colonial) legacies, national political culture and institutions, and the varied social and ethnic make-up of European Muslims. There are also wide variations in the positions of Jewish communities in Europe. One the one hand a European Union-funded study examining the issue of religious slaughter cites an estimate of the Jewish population of France at around 600,000 around 1% of the population. By contrast in Norway there are only around 2,000 Jews, less than 0.04% of the population. In Germany again there are particular circumstances given the history of the holocaust.

These variations help explain some of the variation in approaches to Halal. In Norway, for example, the tiny size of the Jewish population has limited the impetus for reversing the requirement that animals must be stunned before slaughter with no exception for religious groups. In Germany the fact that the Nazis banned Jews from practising Schechita (the ritual slaughter required to produce Kosher meat) has placed severe constraints on public discourse on the issue. In France, the strong emphasis on the separation of church and state and the scale of immigration (France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe) have helped catapult controversies over integration to centre stage in national politics.

In this context the controversies over ritual slaughter give a certain resonance to the European Union motto ‘united in diversity’.