Just before Easter this year, a group of Christians in South Africa objected to the labelling of hot cross buns at Woolworths, a premium supermarket, as halal. Possibly chastened by the furore which erupted over its stocking of Christian magazines a couple of years ago, Woolies apologised. But, wonderfully, the response of the South African public was hilarity: what on earth, asked people on social media and radio chat shows, was wrong with making hot cross buns available to Muslims?
As many pointed out, it would be interesting to see if these Christians also avoided McDonald’s, KFC, Nando’s or any of the other fast food chains which serve halal food. In a country as socially and culturally diverse as South Africa, it makes sense for restaurants and shops to sell halal and kosher products. Most chicken sold in South Africa is halal, for instance.
In fact, the South African Easter meal of choice is pickled fish – a dish developed by slaves brought to the Cape from southeast Asia, India, and elsewhere during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these slaves would have been Muslim, a religion tolerated by the Dutch and, later, British authorities on the grounds that they believed it to be ‘civilised’ and unlikely to encourage slaves to revolt or disobey their masters and mistresses.
So South African Christians eat a dish at Easter which was created by Muslim slaves more than two centuries ago. And even those who are not Christian eat it: we had my Mum’s version of pickled fish on Good Friday – based on a recipe my Great-Grandmother cooked – with pilaf instead of the usual bread-and-butter, and it was delicious.
I was interested by the hot cross bun debate because – I think – it’s the first major discussion South Africans have had about the labelling of halal food. Last year there was some controversy about a meat supplier which allegedly sold haram meat as halal, but the debates then were about the regulation of the meat industry, and not about the public’s willingness – or otherwise – to eat halal food.
This ‘storm in a baking pan,’ as Father Chris Townsend of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference put it, was fairly unusual, in international terms, in the way that it was greeted with such widespread condemnation. In France, the first country in Western Europe to ban women from wearing the burqa and niquab in public, the labelling of halal food is now an electoral issue. Concerned by the depressing popularity of far-right loon Marine le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy announced in January that if re-elected, he would enact legislation to ensure that all halal foods are clearly labelled. (You can donate to Francois Hollande’s campaign here.)
Sarkozy justified these new measures – which angered Jewish leaders as well – by implying that the ritual slaughter of animals for halal and, by implication, kosher meat is inhumane. But French Muslims argue that Sarkozy and the French right’s attack on ritual slaughter has less to do with the treatment of animals than it does to broader debates about multiculturalism and social integration in France. As one French blogger commented:
Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen have resorted to this because they have no solutions to the real problems. It’s the last desperate thrashings of a mad dog that has nothing to lose. It’s part of a chain of thought that goes from halal meat to Islamism to terrorism.
This isn’t the only recent debate about the labelling of halal meat and ritual slaughter. Australia and Canada have seen similar discussions, and the Daily Mail seems to specialise in a kind of hysterical journalism which links the widespread availability of halal meat to the end of Britain and the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Religious slaughter is banned in New Zealand, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden. An attempt to enact a similar ban in the Netherland last year was blocked at the last minute.
What makes these debates interesting is that they are hardly new. David Smith writes that in 1995,
a federal German court effectively banned Muslims from slaughtering animals without prior stunning. The court ruled that the practice was not required by their religion and was thus not protected by the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious expression. In January 2002, however, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the right to freedom of religious expression and choice of occupation did in fact ensure the entitlement of Germany’s Muslims, or at least those responsible for their provision with halal meat, to resume stunningless methods for such ends without the threat of legal action.
In his excellent Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (1995), Sander Gilman explores shifting attitudes towards shehitah, the slaughter of animals in accordance with Judaic law and custom. In the 1880s and 1890s, various campaigns to outlaw shehitah emerged in Europe. In Germany, only Saxony eventually banned shehitah in 1897. While many supporters of the campaign were anti-vivisectionists or were concerned about the treatment of animals in abattoirs, there is no coincidence that this interest in the butchering of kosher meat developed at the same time as a wave of anti-Semitism swept Europe.
In 1883, delegates at a meeting of the Congress for the Protection of Animals in Vienna argued that the protection of ritual slaughter was an indication of Jewish influence over European politics. But others pointed out that the attempt effectively to ban kosher meat was driven by anti-Semitism. In 1885, the Lord Mayor of London compared the campaign to the allegations around Jewish ritual murder during the medieval period. The liberal Berlin Daily News declared in 1893 that those opposed to ritual slaughter were ‘pure anti-Semites’. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis outlawed ritual slaughter – also in the name of preventing cruelty to animals – during the 1930s.
There is, then, an obvious link between anxiety about religious difference, and even racism, and concerns about ritual slaughter. That said, expressing concern about the ways in which animals are slaughtered should not necessarily immediately be construed as religious or cultural intolerance. Countries need to find a balance between facilitating the religious practices of all their citizens, and the humane treatment of animals.
The South African hot cross bun fight (ahem, sorry) was not, though, about ritual slaughter. The Christians who complained about the labelling of hot cross buns in Woolworths were angry about the association of a Christian symbol – the cross on the bun – with a sticker connected to Islam. Next year, Woolies will sell hot cross buns (without the halal sticker) and spiced buns (with a halal sticker). The buns will be identical, with the exception of a flour-and-water-paste cross on the former.
I don’t know enough about the history of attitudes towards religious slaughter in South Africa to position this incident within a broader, historical context, but there are several examples of religious communities coexisting fairly harmoniously during periods of this country’s past. Most of the butchers in nineteenth-century Cape Town were Muslim, for example. This meant that the majority of Victorian Capetonians ate halal meat, regardless of their religious beliefs.
This incident demonstrates not only the extent to which food is integral to the maintenance of religious identities – which is particularly ironic given the fact that so many of the traditions and rituals we associate with Easter have pagan origins – but that people’s anxieties about religious freedom and identity are frequently played out through debates around food.
Sources cited here:
Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka, the Jewish Patient (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
Pablo Lerner and Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, ‘The Prohibition of Ritual Slaughtering (Kosher Shechita and Halal) and Freedom of Religion of Minorities,’ Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 22, no. 1 (2006/2007), pp. 1-62.
David Smith, ‘“Cruelty of the Worst Kind”: Religious Slaughter, Xenophobia, and the German Greens,’ Central European History, vol. 40, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 89-115.
Ellen Wiles, ‘Headscarves, Human Rights, and Harmonious Multicultural Society: Implications of the French Ban for Interpretations of Equality,’ Law & Society Review, vol. 41, no. 3 (Sep., 2007), pp. 699-735.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.