Animal religious slaughter and the politics of the multicultural

In the last few weeks the issue of religious slaughter of animals has again been widely discussed in the media, sparked it appears by an interview for The Times newspaper by John Blackwell, president-elect of the British Veterinary Association. In the background of the broader debate is the recent decision by the Danish government to ban religious slaughter for the production of kosher and halal meat. The point of this comment piece is not particularly to address the rights or wrongs of or dhabh, or consider their status from a philosophical, religious or political science point of view, but rather to reflect both historically and in the context of wider debates concerning British ‘multiculturalism’.

The debate about religious slaughter is nothing new. Writing in 1998 Poulter counted 6 private members bills introduced to parliament seeking to remove or limit the exemption for shechita since 1955 (1998: 134) Religious animal slaughter has been opposed by animal rights groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Compassion in World Farming and the Humane Slaughter Association. During the 1980s the outcry was particularly strong, coinciding with a period in which Muslim parents were also campaigning strongly for the provision of Halal meat in schools. The result of this, Humayan Ansari has shown, was that British Muslims coordinated effective responses to engage with government officials and public discourses. In 1994 a Halal Food Authority was established as ‘a network of approved abattoirs and shops to provide the community with independently certified halal meat’ (Ansari 2004: 355). At the same time public opinion seemed to harden: a 1983 National Opinion Poll indicated that 77% opposed religious slaughter. Religious slaughter was established as a hot issue concerning British political multiculturalism.

There is, of course, a much longer history to religious and cultural accommodations and exemptions in the United Kingdom. The legal exemption for animal religious slaughter was formally established in England and Wales by the 1933 Slaughter of Animals Act (1928 in Scotland). In the preceding years the Board of Deputies of British Jews had campaigned hard on the matter. This exemption, it would appear, was fitting with a larger British tradition of religious accommodation and exemption. For David Feldman, there has been a pattern of the state finding ‘pluralist solutions’ (Feldman 2011: 293) to religious diversity. Examples might include the gradual removal, since the eighteenth century, of religious and political disabilities affecting religious minorities outside the Church of England; state grants for Jewish, Roman Catholic and Methodist schools during the nineteenth century; and then in 1976 the allowance for Sikhs wearing turbans to be exempt from wearing motor-cycle helmets. For Feldman, this tradition is one best described as ‘conservative pluralism’ – conservative because the hegemony of the national Church was also maintained (Feldmam 2011: 293). Feldman’s analysis is persuasive, and provides a valuable historical perspective on the more recent evolution of British multiculturalism.

Issues such as the religious slaughter are at the heart of wider, highly contested discourses concerning political responses to religious diversity. It is important to note that the moral argument for animal rights (which I am not discussing here) has in the past sometimes merged, or cross-fertilised, with other discourses. According to Ansari (2004: 354) , in the 1980s, the group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) ‘denounced demands for “separate meat” as “disastrous”, viewing it as the thin end of the wedge that would “be followed by facilities for separate catering, separate kitchen staff, separate swimming for girls and boys and single-sex classes”, none of which, it was argued, would be conducive to “improving race relations” –rather it was more likely to encourage “racial segregation”’.

The question of religious slaughter of animals is sometimes not distinguished from wider issues concerning multiculturalism and ‘cultural relativism’. Quite apart from the issue of animal rights (which I labour to point out I am not discussing here) I have some sympathy with elements of the recent argument set out by newspaper columnist Janice Turner. Much of the wider public opposition to animal religious slaughter may not be about animal rights, but an ‘ingrained fear of what is foreign’ (Times, 8 March 2014).

John Maiden
Lecturer in Religious Studies, OU.