IF you were to read only the tabloid press in the UK, you could be excused for thinking that an Islamic takeover was imminent. From Sharia courts to the stealthy introduction of halal meat into the national diet, it would appear that a shadowy Muslim army is waiting in the wings.
The current scare is about the revelation that Pizza Express, a national franchise, uses halal chicken in all its poultry-based pizzas. Shock! Horror! But it turns out that the fast food chain laid this out clearly on its website a couple of years ago. Then we are informed by Nesrine Malik in the Guardian that 96 per cent of halal poultry is stunned before being ritually slaughtered.
The supposed objection in the West to halal meat is that animals suffer unnecessary pain by having their throats cut. But the reality is that unlike much of the Muslim world, animals in the UK are stunned by electric bolts, so they feel nothing at the end. In the case of halal meat, a ritual prayer is recited at the moment of death. “Ah!” say the critics. “But what if we don’t want our meat to be ritualistically prepared? What if our faith — or the lack of one — demands that we eat meat that is not halal or kosher?”
The other side of this particular coin is that other surveys indicate that young British Muslims tend to be more religiously conservative than their parents.
The reality is that for years, Brits — in particular those who read the right-wing tabloid press — have been happily devouring halal meat in their local curry restaurants. But the thought of eating a pizza with kosher meat in the topping has suddenly become anathema.
As Nesrine Malik observes acutely in her Guardian piece:
“In Britain, there is now a cycle of Islamic scare stories so regular that it is almost comforting, like the changing of seasons… We had the niqab winter last year, as the country lurched into the niqab debate… Now we are in the spring of halal slaughter.”
The current controversy began while we were still in the grip of the alleged Islamic plot to take over a number of Birmingham schools. Michael Gove, the education secretary, has unleashed a number of inspectors on these state institutions, and according to reports, they are conducting an aggressive investigation into these allegations without reaching any conclusion thus far. One interesting fact to emerge is that over the last few years, several of these schools have made remarkable progress, thanks to the involvement of Muslim parents in their management.
But it is the full niqab and burqa that is easily the most divisive element of the ongoing debate over what it means to be British and Muslim. Even my most liberal English friends seethe inwardly when confronted with women covered from head to toe. Those who know me well enough not to fear that I would take umbrage ask: “Why do they want to hide themselves behind these shrouds?”
I explain that in many cases, these garments are symbols of identity and defiance: many Muslim women born and brought up in Britain feel marginalised by the host community, and don the niqab to distance themselves. But the numbers are tiny, and hardly worth the heat and sound that surrounds this particular debate.
Nevertheless, it is the differences that keep getting emphasised, whether it is about Islamic banking or so-called ‘Sharia courts’. The reality lies in an uncomfortable truth: since 9/11 and 7/7, Muslims have become the targets of barely concealed suspicion. One recent survey of young (16-24) Britons revealed that nearly 30pc said they did not trust Muslims.
The other side of this particular coin is that other surveys indicate that young British Muslims tend to be more religiously conservative than their parents. For instance, 75pc of young Muslim women say they are for the veil, including the hijab; only 19pc of the adult Muslim population voice a similar view. Nearly 40pc young Muslims support the application of Sharia law in Britain; 36pc are for the killing of apostates; and a third say they support killing to ‘protect religion’. Not a single respondent thought that homosexuality is acceptable.
Clearly, there is a huge gulf in social and political attitudes between young Muslims and the majority in Britain. How many of these extreme views are assumed, or are rites of passage is unclear. But certainly they make it difficult for relaxed ties to develop between members of the two communities.
In a post-religious Britain, it is hard for most people to even begin to understand why faith matters so much to Muslims. Why, they wonder, do Muslims get so worked up about cartoons in an unknown Danish newspaper, or some silly, blasphemous film on YouTube?
To reinforce this negative impression, extraneous events play a powerful role. When the psychopathic leader of Boko Haram kidnaps and threatens to sell hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls as slaves, many in the West conflate this hateful image with Muslims living in their midst. And the lack of a clear condemnation of such brutality across the Muslim world does not help matters.
And so we are locked in a perpetual pattern of action and reaction: the more Muslims are stigmatised, the more they flaunt their extremism. One set of prejudices feeds into the other in an unending cycle of insensitive rhetoric and mistrust.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2014