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Sumbul Ali-Karamali

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Halal Phobia in France

Posted: 03/03/10 12:15 PM ET

In France, Islamophobia is reaching new heights. A French town has recently filed a complaint against a fast food chain because the restaurant now prepares burgers from halal meat. One French politician warns against "Islamization" from eating halal meat. Apparently, eating meat killed according to Islamic butchering rules might make you Muslim. Beware.

The halal butchering rules were meant to promote health and humane treatment of animals. "Halal" means "permissible." Under halal butchering rules, the animal must be killed quickly by cutting its throat -- that was the quickest and most painless way in when the rules were developed over a thousand years ago. Additionally, it must be killed outside the presence of other animals. The words, "God is most caring, most forgiving," must be said before the animal is killed, to indicate that the animal is being killed for food and not sport. Torturing an animal is not allowed in Islam.

I fail to see the evil and subversive motive here in offering halal meat at restaurants.

Burgers made of halal meat should taste no different from those that are not halal. I cannot count the number of All-Beef Kosher hot dogs I've eaten, especially at baseball games. I don't feel "tainted" for having done so. I am still Muslim, and don't feel that part of me has become Jewish because I've eaten kosher food throughout my life. Indeed, Muslims have often preferred to eat kosher meat in the United States, rather than non-Kosher, because that is permissible, too. In fact, the Qur'an says that the food of Jews and Christians (except for specifically forbidden food, like pork) is permissible to eat.

It is therefore difficult for me to understand why non-Muslims would be averse to eating meat that was butchered according to halal rules that promote health and humane slaughtering.

But I suspect it's fear. Fear and politics. Fear of immigration -- which we have, too, in the United States, though it's directed more at immigration from Mexico -- and the politics that plays upon it. Right-wing pundits in the U.S. blame Mexican immigrants for everything from taking over our culture (Glenn Beck) to job loss to crime to leprosy (Lou Dobbs). Both fear and politics operate the same way in France, conveniently blaming all French social ills on Islam. Hence, the reaction toward halal.

It's not a new attitude, either. In 2003, Manuel Valls, the mayor of a Paris suburb, opposed a halal supermarket that did not sell pork or alcoholic beverages. He said, as the current litigants do, that the supermarket should have sold other kinds of meat, as well.

Should we apply the same logic and require Jewish delis to serve pork? Should vegetarian restaurants be sued because they discriminate against meat-eaters? Pastry shops because they serve almond croissants but no ham-and-cheese?

Discrimination against Muslim immigrants in France is very real. As Laila Lalami points out, while the unemployment rate for French university graduates is 5 percent, the unemployment rate for North-African French university graduates is 27 percent. Western portrayal of Muslims, she adds, focuses on the problems they cause and not the problems they face. Discussions are about Muslims, not with them. Protests against poverty are portrayed as "Muslim protests," and issues of civil liberties, like a woman's right to dress the way she wants, are portrayed as "Muslim" issues.

The problem is not Islam. American Muslims are proof that Islam does not prevent integration; a recent Pew poll described the American Muslim population as middle-class, mainstream, and moderate. No religion can survive, as Islam has, for 1400 years without being flexible and adaptable. Rather, the problem is the combination of socioeconomics, widespread ignorance of Muslim beliefs and practices, and fear of the other.

But until this is recognized, every action by Muslims and every action to accommodate Muslims -- like the fast-food chain serving halal meat -- will continue to be construed as threatening and hostile. In a world growing smaller by the day, this path is guaranteed to lead to conflict. I cannot imagine that this is the path on which any of us wish to be.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali is an attorney with an additional degree in Islamic law. She is the author of "The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing," (www.muslimnextdoor.com), a fun-to-read introduction to Islam and a Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publisher's Awards.