Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Subs of the Day and Islamophobia

In Britain we have a great tradition of racism and xenophobia which many of us are keen to keep alive and well to this day. A subtle, or not so subtle, way that this manifests in the twenty-first century is through objecting to certain aspects of people's religious beliefs, as opposed to something as old-school and obvious as the colour of their skin.

Particularly when it comes to Islam, white people are particularly keen of a certain word: barbaric. The use of the death penalty in any Islamic country is "barbaric", in China and North Korea it's because they have totalitarian regimes, and the fact that it's maintained in the law and practice of 40 countries including the USA and Japan is largely ignored. Islam is framed as uniquely sexist, uniquely opposed to the rights of gay people, uniquely intolerant, aggressive and savage.

Some of this sentiment comes from people who regard the UK as a 'Christian country'. Some of it comes from people with a more secular or atheist view. They see modern Christianity as a suitably watered-down form of religion, but when it comes to Islam, they see a threat. This is fuelled by a hostile media, happy to print stories about "Muslim grooming gangs", or suggest that councils are spending money on "Muslim only toilets". Objecting to a religion becomes more palatable than objecting to a race. We convince ourselves that we don't dislike these people for the colour of their skin, and we don't hate them just because of their religion, but we do actually disagree with this one specific thing in their religion, so they should probably change that if they want to integrate properly into society.

Thus, halal meat. For meat to be halal the animal is hung upside down and its throat cut. "In the name of God" is said. It doesn't even have to be killed by a Muslim. Kosher meat slaughtered by a Jew is also halal, and an animal killed in the same way by a Christian (as long as it isn't one forbidden by Islamic law) would also be halal.

There is some controversy about how humane a method this is. Some activists argue that an animal killed in this way could take up to two minutes to die, and thus will experience pain. But how much pain is an acceptable amount for an animal to experience when it is slaughtered? And how pain-free are secular methods of slaughter? Reactionaries describe halal slaughter as "barbaric", yet I'm yet to meet one who knows the first thing about how slaughter is carried out on an industrial scale in a secular abattoir. If you're still under any illusions, just Google the phrase "secret filming of animal abuse in slaughterhouses".

Any person who eats meat is complicit in some form of animal suffering. Even if you eat a diet of only organic free-range meat, you have no idea how much pain the animal on your plate went through when it was killed. And if you're happy to eat battery-farmed animals then what makes you think that the final two minutes an animal is alive is what should count when deciding how ethical your dinner is? Unless you rear your own livestock from scratch and slaughter it yourself, you are in no place to judge. Apart from if you're a vegan, in which case we're all as bad bad each other.

Recently it transpired that some Subway restaurants now only serve halal meat. This is not new: some branches have been halal since 2007. The beef, chicken and turkey on offer are all halal, and they don't serve any pork products in the establishment.

This isn't about enforcing religious laws on all their customers but simply that for an establishment to advertise as halal they need to be able to ensure that all their products will definitely be halal.  To avoid the risk of a careless staff member using a knife that's touched a bit of pork when they're making a supposedly halal sandwich, the easiest option is just not to sell any pork products in the branch.

Subway, as a giant American chain, can presumably care about one thing over everything else: profit. The UK's first Subway opened in 1996, and there are now 1423, of which less than 200 are halal. By opening halal stores, it means they can welcome the custom (and money) of Muslim customers who observe a halal diet. Of course this means they miss out on the custom of those who refuse to a sandwich unless it contains bacon, but it's a simple economic decision.

If you have a sincere moral objection to halal meat, then I can only assume you feel the same way about the more troubling aspects of the meat industry in general. If you're still unconvinced, Google for "Kentucky Fried Cruelty" and watch a video of some chickens being boiled alive.

If you feel uneasy about the lack of pork in your sandwich, then you need to ask yourself why. None of the franchises have changed overnight - all the halal ones were opened as halal. And this isn't even a much-loved traditional English chain - they only opened their 50th store in 2001. Have you ever had a kebab? Probably halal. Some branches of Nando's and KFC are halal as well.

Welcome to capitalism. These companies are responding to consumer demand - they decide what they want to sell and you decide whether or not you want to buy it. If you're really bothered by all this then I doubt Subway cares. They probably factored in "reactionary idiots" as part of a cost-benefit analysis when they first launched halal franchises.So feel free to boycott Subway if you must: there are plenty of other sandwich places to choose from.

But be aware that if you're doing this it's probably because you're a stupid racist. Oh and by the way, all fish counts as halal so you'll need to boycott that too.