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Kosher Jews and Halal Muslims: Representations of Ritual Slaughter and the Voices of Young People

15/04/2014 15:47 BST | Updated 15/06/2014 10:59 BST

By Shanza Ali and Ben Kasstan

Whilst some insightful articles have been written about the calls for 'reform' in the kosher and halal meat industry, notably those published in The Guardian, there remain issues in the representation of who a ban would affect. The images of 'ultra-Orthodox' Jews or observant Muslims in their visible insignia lead the 'general' public to believe that perhaps only a minority of people in these faiths abide by the religious laws of eating kosher and halal meat. This representation of 'kosher Jews' and 'halal Muslims' does little to challenge (mis)understandings of what Judaism or Islam entails or how these diverse communities are perceived, and instead offers an inaccurate image of ritual food production being upheld by tightly-knit religious and devout groups who live in enclaves and at the fringes of society.

The language used when representing kosher and halal slaughter is equally damaging, especially when terms such as 'ritual' slaughter, 'slashing' of the throat and 'bleed to death' are used to describe a sacred practice, as seen in a recent article in The Independent. It is no wonder that unease is aroused amongst the public when kosher and halal slaughter is framed in a way that resembles a scene from Sweeney Todd. The irony lies in the fact that all animals, even those killed systematically in abattoirs, have their throats 'slashed' and bleed from the throat - even whilst conscious as a shocking percentage of animals are ineffectively stunned according to research by Compassion in World Farming and the European Food Safety Authority. Despite the differences of religious slaughter in Judaism (shechita) and in Islam (Zabiha), experienced and licenced slaughter-men bring the immediate loss of consciousness which acts as a stun in itself and brings a 'painless' end to an animal (see Shechita UK 2009). These practices must meet the strict demands of religious law which consists of forbidden techniques and explicit requirements; all performed with a view to respect the life of animals.

As young and active members of our respective communities, we feel it is important to challenge the ambiguities raised by not only the provocative call to ban ritual slaughter but also the responses that have surfaced.

For Jewish students across the UK, a typical Friday night on campus consists of Shabbat dinner; the coming together of remarkably different people over a steaming bowl of chicken soup. A kosher meal means that everybody can sit together in the true vision of kehila (community); non-kosher food excludes and divides the more observant Jews from their secular peers. The reasons why young Jews keep kosher can extend beyond rabbinical law (halachah), and can be upheld as a fundamental tenet of Jewish identity because it is an embodiment of Judaism; you are, quite literally, what you eat.

Does this make young people like Ben 'archaic' for following aspects of kosher practice, as expressed by charming members of the BNP? He would argue no, especially as a PhD candidate and affiliate of Liberal Judaism; a movement well known for questioning the rationale or observance of particular aspects of rabbinical law. To touch on a related issue, there is also an element of trust in the controls placed over kosher food that is not afforded by the systematised meat industry, epitomised by an anecdote from a 90 year old Shoah survivor "you won't get horse meat in your dinner if you keep kosher".

For the majority of young Muslims across the UK, 'halal' - is a bit of a big deal to say the least. Most, like Shanza, have grown up with a constant reminder to watch what we eat, and Islamic guidelines have provided the lawful standard for this. In fact, halal is among one of the most commonly upheld requirements of the Muslim faith in the UK. Many young British Muslims may view religious practice differently or might not adhere to the five daily prayers, but 'halal' is in most cases necessary; you are what you eat and to depart from halal is to depart from one of the fundamentals.

Islamic teachings place great importance on the rights of animals and God's creation at large. They grant permissibility to eat animals like cattle and poultry that are healthy (see Mai'dah, 5:4) but set strict conditions, and make clear that the animals are in a state of submission to God and thus when an animal is killed for this purpose it should be done in the most God conscious, empathetic and gentle ways (by covering the animal's eyes and reciting God's name), so as to facilitate a peaceful death. Moreover, as Ben explains, the idea behind shechita/zabiha is to bring about a natural stun and facilitate a less painful death. It cannot be said however that the 'halal' meat industry is without flaw and the realities of modern intensive farming around the world have impacted halal standards significantly.

Nonetheless, the ease of access to halal meat in many parts of the UK, and the ability to dine in restaurants that serve halal options - is something to be very grateful for. It has allowed many young Muslims like Shanza to participate and integrate more deeply into society. It has been a testament to the fact that our differences need not to be a source of contention and that by taking steps to facilitate others we can unite and strengthen our bonds as communities.

Worryingly however, the current rhetoric of kosher and halal could be (and certainly feels like) a sign of increasing intolerance and implicit discrimination in some parts of Europe towards minority groups rather than their particular practices. This is especially the case as the Danish ban, as well as John Blackwell's (British Veterinary Association) comments, follow intense debate over circumcision as well as religious or cultural dress. Moreover, this argument is demonstrated by clear inconsistencies in the ongoing debate of animal welfare. Considering that fox hunting is practiced in the UK despite being illegal, and whaling in the Faro Islands (autonomous region within the Kingdom of Denmark), battery farming and foie gras all remain unchallenged an accepted practices in Europe, is not curious that kosher and halal slaughter are pinpointed as being cruel? At the very least, the kosher-halal debate is much more about 'selective ethics' (to borrow a term used by Dr Nagihan Haliloglu, Alliance of Civilizations Institute Istanbul) than the ethical considerations of animal slaughter.

An interesting consideration that has been raised by the recent Danish ban and John Blackman's remarks is the idea that animal welfare should apply at the end of life, rather than at the beginning. Perhaps this is where reform can and should apply in husbandry, with a national agenda to put the human into humane killing as a gold standard for the entire food production system.

Links:

Compassion in World Farming, https://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2008/a/animal_welfare_problems_in_uk_slaughterhouses_2001.pdf

British National Party, http://www.bnp.org.uk/news/national/only-bnp-opposes-ritual-slaughter-animals

Dr Nagihan Haliloglu, http://medit.fsm.edu.tr/Y-Doc-Dr-Nagihan-Haliloglu

European Food Safety Authority, http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/doc/123.pdf

Mai'dah 5:4, http://quran.com/5/4

Shechita UK, http://www.shechitauk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/A_Guide_to_Shechita_2009_.pdf

The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/06/jewish-muslim-slaughter-animal-welfare-humane

The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britains-top-vet-sparks-controversy-with-call-for-ban-on-slashing-animals-throats-in-ritual-slaughters-for-halal-and-kosher-meat-products-9173258.html)