Teacup in a storm - Ranier Fsadni

Teacup in a storm - Ranier Fsadni

The Halal Guys, Street food in New York city. Photo: Shutterstock

The Halal Guys, Street food in New York city. Photo: Shutterstock

There are storms in teacups and then there are teacups in a storm. The social media furore over halal slaughter in Malta began as the former but threatens to morph into the latter. The fuss over a piece of non-news has swelled into an over-reaction featuring public figures, where some of the already fragile values of our republic – like pluralism, consistency and informed, rational debate – are tumbling in the swirl of hot air.

It all began earlier this week when an enterprising TVM journalist, Glen Falzon, interviewed Imam Mohammed al-Sadi about halal meat – that is, meat from animals slaughtered in conformity with Islamic requirements. The short answer is that, as with Jewish kosher meat, the live animal’s throat must be cut and most of the blood left to run out.

Then Imam al-Sadi added something. Slaughter by cutting, carried out by a licensed Muslim (approved by the Imam), already takes place at the national abattoir. But it takes place according to the European directive that stipulates that animals must be stunned before the cut, a stipulation that both Jewish and Muslim authorities generally find objectionable. The same European law allows for exceptions to be made on religious grounds. Imam al-Sadi said that he had asked the Maltese authorities if such an exception could be made here.

It’s this request that has raised the furore on TVM’s website, Facebook page and Twitter. The Imam has been accused of wanting to impose Islamic rules on Malta, or, at least to introduce them. Well, is he?

The Imam was referring to a request made a few years ago. The government clearly is letting the matter drift, without wishing to give a stark refusal. If you’re worried about the fate of this bastion of Western civilisation, fear not. That most powerful of government weapons – creative inertia – has been deployed.

In any case, the Imam is seeking to impose nothing. He made the request, in accordance with established democratic norms, in the course of social dialogue (remember that?). He asked for an exception allowed by European law and which several European countries grant.

It is true that such exceptions are controversial because of concerns for animal welfare. The TVM report was slightly misleading in suggesting that the controversy is recent. It has indeed returned to the fore recently but in Europe the debate dates back over a century, although then it was associated with the communities of Jews, who also object to pre-cut stunning.

As a consumer, you can never tell if the meat you’re eating came from a properly slaughtered animal. Which makes it problematicfor observant Muslimsand Jews

This clarification is not a quibble. In Germany, the mandated stunning of animals was first associated with a law passed by that squeamish vegetarian, Adolf Hitler. The impact on European Jews was linked to rising anti-Semitism. Today, Germany permits the religious exception but only for domestic consumption, not for exported meat.

Because the concern over animal welfare dates back so long, so does some of the science. The Imam was not making the science up. Some early studies did indicate animals do not suffer (the blood pressure falls so rapidly that pain cannot be registered by the brain). But the equipment used then would be considered inaccurate now and some recent studies do point to animal suffering.

So two important features of modern European society are pitted against each other in this issue: religious freedom and animal welfare. There is every reason to have a debate. But not the kind we’re having.

First, there is the ignorance of European values. All those people urging Imam al-Sadi to go back to his country should really return to their own. Currently, they’re on planet Zog. It’s not just that the Imam is a Maltese citizen and that many Muslims in Malta are as well. This is their country, too.

It’s also because religious freedom is one of our values. We do not debate whether halal slaughter should be permitted because Muslims seek to impose it. We debate it because our own values lead us to take religious claims, and religious pluralism, seriously.

We discuss not because we are captive to foreigners. We discuss because we’re secular, want to promote pluralism and, thus, to be true to ourselves.

The idea that these are foreign values shows an ignorance of the very European history and identity the protests are supposed to defend. In terms of history, animal welfare is a fairly recent European concern. Jewish communities are a rather older feature.

Before anyone pipes up to defend “Judaeo-Christian values” against the “Muslim invader”, they should know that Jewish communities in Belgium are just as upset by the new law, mandating pre-cut stunning, that on January 1 came into effect in Flanders (whose trade capital, Antwerp, has an old Jewish community).

And we should all be careful that no anti-Semitism creeps into the way we discuss either Jews or Muslims as not belonging.

There does remain the genuine concern about animal welfare. Even here we can do better.

First, I think we are entitled to expect consistency from politicians squealing about cruelty to animals and expressing the wish that Islamic ‘tradition’ (it’s actually scripture) changes.

Would they feel the same about bird-hunting traditions? If they’re not wantonly cruel, why not?

And would these same politicians be against importing halal meat from countries that do not practise pre-cut stunning? Surely, if it’s the cruelty that’s the issue, why would we want to support what goes on elsewhere?

Second, the choice before us is actually wider than has been suggested. The Jewish and Muslim objections to stunning animals prior to the cut does not have to do with the stunning in itself. Religious law stipulates only that the animal should not be dead before the cut.

Stunning usually does not kill the animal. But sometimes it does. And, as a consumer, you can never tell if the meat you’re eating came from a properly slaughtered animal. Which makes it problematic for observant Muslims and Jews. This is why some jurisdictions have tried to find an alternative way round this problem. Austria, Finland and Latvia, for example, permit stunning to take place immediately after the cut. It dissolves the religious scruples.

My own view is to give considerable weight to religious freedom (on secular grounds), particularly on issues that are essential to worship. I cannot understand why the State cannot explore methods of slaughter that satisfy all the concerns (any extra expense will be carried in the commercial pricing of halal meat).

Or, rather, I cannot understand why intellectually honest people wouldn’t be in favour. I can understand if the fuss is really all a pretext.


This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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