Secular Vegetarianism vs. Halal

The curious incident of the hog.

The other day I returned from lunch (chicken burrito with extra jalapeños, if you must know) to the dull roar of female colleagues nattering.

These unintellectual and unintelligible mutterings would not usually register with me – in the same way males have evolved to sleep through the crying of an infant (allegedly) – for on a good day these conversations typically concern nothing more philosophically challenging than the merits of one reality television programme over another.  This particular exchange caught my attention, though.

One of the ladies, a personable Muslim, had moments earlier begun to consume what she thought was vegetable soup only to discover that the soup had bacon pieces in it, and I concluded from what I heard that this colleague was an observant Muslim who didn’t eat pig flesh for religious reasons.

It appears that Allah is not only wicked but that He has a wicked sense of humour.

In all fairness she was rather calm about it.  There was no banging of her own head, no stamping on a burning stars and stripes flag, no shouting ‘Down With USA!’  and no displaying one of these placards.

And so she should have been calm: it’s not as though her consumption of pork, intended or unintended, could possibly have any adverse spiritual or cosmological consequences for her or anyone else.  The idea that a creator of the universe would take a keen interest in her dietary habits is pathetic and arrogant.  In the extreme.

If anything, the reactions of her (infidel) colleagues were more bizarre, though well-meaning.  They assumed she had undergone serious, non-reversible theological harm.  “What do you do now?”, one of them asked, genuinely perturbed and also eager to understand whether there was an immediate theological remedy that could be applied.  (“In case of ingestion contact your imam immediately”.)  You could say the religious rights of these infidels had been infringed, by proxy.  Or rather, by Percy.

Anyway, it did get me thinking.  What if this colleague had been a vegetarian?  By that I don’t necessarily mean an atheist vegetarian, but nor do I mean someone whose vegetarianism was inspired by scripture or theology which suggested eating animals can have adverse spiritual consequences for a human.  I just mean someone whose motivation for being vegetarian was simply that animals should not die for her belly to be full.  A secular vegetarian, I suppose.

Would the secular vegetarian who had unwittingly eaten pork deserve more sympathy, or less sympathy, than the observant Muslim?

I concluded that I would have more sympathy for the vegetarian.

This is because the vegetarian would have been upset at causing unnecessary physical harm to an animal (let us assume the sole reason for the pig’s death was to create this one portion of barely eaten and therefore discarded soup).  The vegetarian would not have been, and presumably would not have felt as though she had been, personally harmed, physically or spiritually.

The Muslim, on the other hand, would be upset not at causing unnecessary physical harm to an animal (whose death again would have been in vain), but at having committed spiritual harm to herself.

I sympathise more with a secular vegetarian’s failed wish that animals should not die to provide food for humans than I do with a Muslim’s failed wish not to be spiritually harmed.  I don’t apologise for that.  It is in essence why I believe religious organisations should not (as they currently do) have exemption from legislation whose aim is to minimise the suffering caused to animals when they are slaughtered.

And there is another intriguing permutation: let us substitute the pork with (non-halal) lamb, which is hardly a crime for the purposes of a hypothetical argument given that meat is often literally substituted by non-meat or quasi-meat in the human food chain.

In the lamb example I would again sympathise with the vegetarian and her noble wish not to cause physical harm to an animal.

In this situation, as before, the Muslim would merely be upset at having committed spiritual harm to herself.  But here’s the interesting bit, and why in this case I would have even less sympathy for the Muslim: not only would she not be upset at causing unnecessary harm to an animal, she would – given the inhumane absence of pre-stunning slaughter for halal meat – be upset at not causing unnecessary harm to an animal.

Hope that makes sense.

***

While we’re on the subject of work…

I’m a pretty calm guy in the office but I am getting annoyed when colleagues ask me why I’m doing this blog.  I wouldn’t mind at all if the tone of the question was one of genuine interest rather than – as is often the case – one of bemusement, justification-seeking or even hostility.

People can choose to read or not to read this blog; I couldn’t care less (ok, I would prefer they did read it).  There is no obligation on them, though.  Similarly, there is no obligation on me to justify or even explain my decision to exercise my freedom of expression (though there are some limits on how I exercise it, of course).

So when I am asked the question the conversation now goes something like this:

“Why are you doing this blog?”

“Two reasons.  Number one, because I can.  Number two, because I want to.”

“Right.  No need to be aggressive.”

“Aggressive?  I’m merely exercising a lawful right and you’re asking me to justify my behaviour.  I can’t think of a good reason why I shouldn’t exercise my freedom of expression. Can you?”

[They think about this for a while, in the same way a baboon would study an iPad.]

“No.”

“Good day.”

***

Post Script, 8 February 2012: I received a thoughtful email on the topic of halal slaughter which I wanted to share.  As well as his other points, the sender raises a good point about the supposed ‘superiority’ of halal:

Hi there!

I read your blog for the first time this evening; I got a link to it from the comments on the Rally to Defend Free Speech Facebook page. Here’s hoping we have a good day, unmolested by crazies!

Your post about the Muslim lady who inadvertently ate pork reminded me of something I thought you might like to be made aware of, and one of my greatest peeves:

I love fried chicken, not in an eat-a-bucket-to-myself-daily kind of way, but if I’m in the situation where I’m getting fast food I’d much prefer it to the other offerings that are widely available. A while back now, at a KFC outlet, it came to my attention that many of their franchises in London serve halal chicken. This was about the time when it was revealed that many airlines use exclusively halal meat in their in-flight meals, to avoid the expense of separate catering arrangements.

It bothers me that the implication is that halal meat preparation is somehow superior to “western” butchery, and as such we should not be precious about eating it, whereas vice versa should be somehow outrageous. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that halal slaughter is in fact nothing short of barbarous!

Now I’m no vegetarian (clearly), I don’t have a problem with animals dying to feed me, but it does rather put me off my Zinger Tower if I know that the former creature I am about to ingest suffered horribly in the final few moments of its life, purely because some bronze-age self-help book makes vague references about the clarity of their eyes prior to their demise.

So I am personally outraged that rules covering the ethical slaughter of livestock get to be suspended in order to appease the superstitions of anyone. I no longer eat at KFCs that cannot assure me their meat is NOT halal, and have to satisfy myself with the anaemic puck that is a McChicken Sandwich to sate my cravings for chicken-in-a-hurry.

I tell you this in the hope you might wish to share the information with your readers, to help them inform their eating choices.

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