Another controvesy

Dearly beloved,

I have become a grumpy old man, so far be it from me to offer any sage advice on the latest manufactured controversy to hit the British Isles, namely the revelation that a lot of meat sold in the UK is allegedly “halal”.

People are allegedly up in arms about this alleged practice. The topic was covered in great detail on the World at One on Radio 4 yesterday lunchtime and again on the Six O’clock News on BBC1 last night. Serious stuff.

Personally, just from a logistical point of view, I have my doubts as to whether so much meat really is “halal” — I expect there to be more revelations in the coming weeks, quietly reported, that a lot of meat passed off as halal is nothing of the sort. Have we forgotten last year’s stories of the cross-contamination of meat already?

But personal doubts are no different from personal opinions, and there have been a lot of those flying around this week. My own personal opinion is that we should eat much less meat than we do, both from a religious perspective and due to the fact that modern large-scale industrial meat production cannot possibly be considered humane. But I don’t practice what I preach — at all. Though I should. Controversies such as this ought to serve as a reminder to those of us who say we care about animal welfare. In its purest form, that is what the halal slaughter of meat is aimed towards.

We are not going to see a sensible debate in the current climate, however. The BBC reported that a prayer in Arabic is made over the animal at the time of slaughter, but it did not venture to report its meaning. To the best of my knowledge, the words used are:

In the name of God, God is the Greatest. Oh God, from You and to You. Oh God, accept it from me.

That ought to be acceptable to meat eaters of most faiths. Some might object to the use of the word “Allah” in place of the English word “God”, but that seems not to be a concern of Arab Christians. And for Atheists: surely no metaphysical transformation could possibly occur as a result of these words. This part of the controversy, I think, is simply scaremongering about the otherness of Muslims.

Others have genuine legitimate concerns about methods of slaughter, but really these should span the industry as a whole. Firing a bolt into an animal’s temple is hardly an act of kindness, especially if you have to repeat the process several times because it did not knock the animal unconscious first time around.

If you have visited an industrial abattoir, as I have, you would quickly conclude that it is far from a humane environment, and you would probably decide, as I did, to turn mostly-vegetarian. But memories fade, for meat has an addiction like that of wine. It is good to have a discussion about where our meat comes from, how it is farmed, how it died and how it arrived on our plates. Sometimes we need to be jolted back into consciousness about the ethical dimensions of our lives.

Which leads onto my real point: responses to representations of the Muslim community. With each new controversy, some more tenuous than others, it is tempting to respond with irony, writing off every new story with satirical wit. But that is dangerous ground. We have to be careful to differentiate between the agendas of news organisations and our genuine problems.

Flabbergasted by the former, a decade ago I myself made the tragic error of judgement in deciding to launch a Muslim version of Private Eye, taking a satirical look at the news and politics — on the eve of the Beslan school massacre, of which I was not fully aware. Naturally my friends reacted then as I do today to our strangely warped priorities: shaking of heads, wondering how I could be so out of touch with reality.

And they were right. The truth is that we are easily led down the wrong avenues by our innate emotions and end up focusing on the wrong issues. Or, taken on the defensive, we justify what is unjustifiable. Or we trade wrongs, as if two wrongs make a right: in place condemnation of an atrocity by Muslims, we hear the playground retort, “But you are killing innocents too.” We are great at finding the speck in others’ eyes, but have difficulty seeing the plank in our own.

The domestic machinations of newspaper editors are not going to leave us any time soon. Our own clowns are presently circulating a petition calling on the State to recognise Eid as a Bank Holiday, even though we can’t agree when it is amongst ourselves. I can already see the headlines, once again emphasising the otherness of Muslims.

Stories about Muslims undermining the nation have been commonplace for over a decade. They are irritating — hurtful even — but their existence should not distract us from the very real work we have to do, tackling very real issues in our communities and beyond. We need to try our best to make our lives halal, to the fullest extent of the word.

Here ends today’s sermon.

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