Halal Hysteria: how faux outrage about halal co-opts the rhetoric of the far-right
This is an updated version of an article first published in Turkish in the German-based magazine, Perspektif on 29th November 2019. The original can be viewed by clicking here.
The faux outrage following the news this week that some of Warburtons’ bread range is now halal-certified was far from unexpected. To this extent, much the same occurred last October when M&S announced that it was first major food retailer in the UK to launch a range of own-brand halal ready meals. Available in 36 stores nationwide, the range was certified by the Halal Food Authority and included some of the retailer’s best-selling prepared meals. From chicken arrabbiata to chicken and mushroom tagliatelle, chicken and leek bake to chicken hotpot, the range is a response to the growing market for halal versions of ‘non-Asian’ dishes, With this in mind, M&S stated the it hoped the halal range would “deliver real commercial impact”.
As with M&S’s decision to sell hijabs as part of its school-wear range, opposition was vociferous and an online campaign was duly launched. Using the hashtag #BoycottMarksAndSpencer, arguments for being against the halal ready meals ranged from concerns about animal welfare through claims of being ‘disgusted’ at the retailer’s thinking through to claiming halal slaughter to be ‘barbaric’ none of which it must be stated would apply to Warburtons. Most striking however was the extent to which that being expressed had a clear resonance with how halal has found form in the rhetoric of the far-right’s vilification of Muslims and the religion of Islam in the UK in recent years.
The first time halal meat prompted notable public outrage in the UK was in 2014 as a response to the Sun newspaper’s headline, “Halal Secret of Pizza Express”. Claiming to expose the restaurant chain for duping customers into eating halal chicken without telling them, it subsequently emerged that the ‘secret’ being referred to was far from a secret. As it emerged, Pizza Express had been publicising the fact it used halal chicken for two years and had tweeted about it on a number of occasions.
Despite it being something of a non-story, the UK media stoked the fires of the growing halal hysteria. To this extent, the BBC reported that M&S, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Co-op were all covertly selling halal New Zealand lamb. The Daily Mail followed this up by voicing its concerns for the ‘millions’ of unsuspecting Brits who were eating halal meat against their wishes. Evidenced as the ‘stealth’ takeover of Britain’s supermarkets by Muslims, the Mail published photos from a halal certified slaughterhouse alongside the comment “more than 100 sheep appeared to writhe in agony after being ritually killed”.
Another news story to add to the hysteria at the time claimed Subway, the fast food chain had ‘banned’ pork products in almost 200 of its stores following pressure from Muslims. Like M&S, Subway’s decision was commercially driven: the stores in question being located in areas where there was a high density of Muslims and where pork products did not sell. While overlooked in the media’s coverage, the decision was rather more about maximising profits from Muslims than it was anything else.
As halal hysteria grew, the resonance of the ongoing public debates with widely used tropes about Muslims and Islam within the UK’s far-right milieu became ever more apparent. As regards the far-right, one of the earliest examples of halal meat and associated practices being used to vilify Muslims was evident in the British National Party’s (BNP) 2005 local government election campaign. Titled “Islam Out of Britain”, the campaign claimed that as halal slaughter was inhumane the BNP would lobby for it to be banned. More than a decade on — and despite being largely defunct — the BNP continues to lobby for its banning. Nowadays an avowed supporter of animal welfare as opposed an Islamophobic political party, it claimed earlier this year that Belgium had adopted its policy on halal slaughter.
Like the BNP, so too did the English Defence League (EDL) actively oppose halal meat and associated practices. Two a after it was established, the EDL launched its ‘Halal Campaign’ in 2011. Premised on the argument that halal slaughter was cruel — and importantly, far crueller than kosher practices — the campaign was indistinguishable from the public hysteria that ensued years later. Identifying stores and restaurants that sold halal meat without labelling it, the EDL called on its supporters — and indeed others — to name and shame while also boycotting them. For the EDL, the practice of non-labelling was evidence of a much wider and far more insidious process that was being engineered by Muslims to impose its practices on British society. In the words of Tommy Robinson, leader of the EDL at the time, ‘creeping sharia’ was pervasive and ongoing in Britain.
However, it is the opposition espoused by Britain First to halal meat and slaughter that affords the best opportunity to understand how this functions as regards vilifying Muslims. Having uploaded a video to its website in 2016, it showed the group’s ‘invasion’ of a halal certified slaughterhouse in London. Showing one of the group’s leaders, Jayda Fransen, forcing her way into the building the video shows her: claiming Islam is ‘disgusting’ and ‘vile’; calling halal slaughter barbaric; rejecting the need for halal slaughterhouses in the UK; stating that Allah is a fake god or Satan; accusing the owners of the slaughterhouse as funding terrorism; before declaring Britain to be a Christian country. What is most striking about this is the extent to which halal is — for the far-right at least — symbolic of the many problems attributed to Muslims and Islam.
As before, it would be wrong to suggest that all those who voice their opposition to halal slaughter either empathise or support the far-right. In this respect, certain basic welfare standards should always be upheld irrespective of the means of slaughter and there is an argument to be made for better labelling. Having said that, one might rightly question whether any form of killing an animal can ever be truly humane. As before however, those that debate has no bearing on the recent announcement by Warburtons.
Noting that it would be wrong to dismiss all opposition out of hand however neither detracts nor denies that significant elements of the recurrent halal hysteria in the UK’s public spaces are Islamophobic and duly function to ‘Other’ Muslims and their communities. A convenient and timely proxy issue for those alleging that Muslims are ‘taking over’, the similarities between the sinister rhetoric of the far-right and those currently opposed to Warburtons’ bread range and M&S’s ready-meals are both stark and real. Given that there is a far more menacing undertow to what is playing out in the public spaces, it is important not to conflate the legitimate with the illegitimate nor to let the far-right manipulate the situation for ideological gain. Having said that, as Warburtons and M&S are unlikely to be the last major retailers to introduce halal-certified products, it unlikely that halal hysteria is going to go away any time soon.