Halal and the cultures of meat - Mark Anthony Falzon
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Halal and the cultures of meat - Mark Anthony Falzon

We think Muslims have a 'culture' while we simply 'eat meat'. What nonsense.

The meat industry does a good job of masking the suffering behind its trade. Image: Shutterstock

The meat industry does a good job of masking the suffering behind its trade. Image: Shutterstock

Sooner or later it had to land here. Halal (and kosher) slaughter has been a matter of public debate elsewhere for a long time, and has involved people like Brigitte Bardot, restaurant chains like PizzaExpress and Subway, and so on.

Muslims in Malta, it seems, were happy to limit themselves to imported halal meat, and maybe the occasional animal slaughtered privately. Now, Imam El Sadi has taken the plunge, predictably to much opprobrium.

The main question is whether or not exceptions should be made to accommodate cultural (religious) freedoms. I can see why many find the prospect hard to digest. This is not about whether or not members of a given group have a right to grow beards. Rather, it involves a third and very sentient party: animals.

As with many of these debates, the problem is the strangely selective use of the word ‘culture’. In this case, we think, Muslims have culture, and it makes them want to do nasty things to animals. The rest of us simply eat meat. At least in this department, we are unburdened by culture - which means that we support methods of slaughter that are based on the rational and scientific principle of least suffering.

Which is nonsense, for two reasons. First, as practised by most contemporary societies, meat eating is a culture. Second, it involves a scale of suffering that makes halal slaughter look like a tea party with St Francis.

There is nothing particularly cultural about the fact that meat is in principle on the human menu. Both chimpanzees and bonobos hunt and eat meat, and they are our closest relatives. Our bodies, too, are built to handle meat as part of a varied diet. Exactly how much meat depends on circumstances. In the case of the extended family, it’s typically less than five per cent of their diet.

Some kind and extent of meat eating, then, is natural. Milk-fed veal cutlets, six layers of pastrami in a sandwich, and a free bag of chicken wings with your Christmas turkey are not. They are, in fact, as cultural as flamenco, or the Sikh turban, or halal.

People will eat meat in various forms and quantities, and for various reasons. I’m not about to moralise about it. My point is simply to establish that there is much about eating meat that is cultural.

You do not have to be Paul McCartney to understand that factory farming is for the most part nightmarish for the animals concerned

It follows that we need to ask ourselves what sort of meat-eating culture we practise and support. For most, and that includes the overwhelming majority of people in Malta, Muslims included, it is a culture of relatively cheap meat that is readily available in large quantities.

The evidence is clear on this one. For example, the number of pigs slaughtered annually has become a sort of indicator of how well we are doing economically. In official statistics, people are classified as poor also because they cannot afford to eat meat or fish every other day. The number of restaurants that specialise in meat has mushroomed, for want of a better word. And so on.

All of which seems to be beside the point, because halal is not about whether or not we eat meat. It is about suffering. Let us accept, not without reason, that halal is a culture that involves suffering. Where does that leave that other popular culture of eating affordable meat in large quantities?

Up that creek and very much without a paddle, truth be told. The cost of eating meat – any amount of it – is animal suffering. (Since I mentioned, chimps tend to bash the brains out of the monkeys they hunt.) The cost of the culture of eating plenty of meat (or eggs, or milk) is another matter altogether. It is animal suffering on a scale unprecedented in either history or nature.

The meat industry does a very good job of masking that suffering. I’ve seen meat trucks in Malta that advertise healthy and happy pigs skipping ropes made of strings of sausages. The logos of many poultry companies feature beautiful green landscapes where the sun shines and all is placid.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You do not have to be Paul McCartney, or the head of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to understand that factory farming – the production of meat in quantities that supplies a particular culture,  that is – is for the most part nightmarish for the animals concerned.

To go into details of how newborn calves are torn from their mothers and pigs condemned to a life of filthy confinement, would be to spoil the Sunday roast (there, another culture) for many readers. I won’t do it, but there really are no excuses for not knowing.

The crucial point is that none of this is natural, whatever that means. While suffering may be a universal inheritance, the kind of systematic, prolonged and tremendous suffering that is factory farming is not. It exists to accommodate a culture, just like halal does.

Do we therefore have to give up and accept suffering in all its forms, and are vegans the only people who are entitled to discuss halal? Not really. On the contrary, it is precisely on matters like animal suffering and food that arguments from culture really make sense.

Only they’re usually misplaced and selective. Halal is very much about culture. It is not, however, about a group of people that has a particular culture, as opposed to others that don’t.

Islam, and indeed halal, are not terribly relevant variables here. There are Muslims who eat large quantities of factory-farmed meat, non-Muslims as well as Muslims who limit themselves to small quantities of the ethically-farmed kind, and so on.

If there is a culture clash at all, it involves different cultures of meat eating, and the animal suffering they produce. Within this scheme of things, halal is a footnote at the most.

mafalzon@hotmail.com

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