Do we want Jews and Muslims to live in this country? It’s a serious question and one prompted by the National Secular Society calling on the next government to ban non-stun ritual slaughter of animals. Dhabihah (halal slaughter) and shechita (its kosher equivalent) cater for Muslims and Jews who observe strict dietary laws on the preparation of livestock for food. Generally, animals must be stunned before being bled, be it by a bolt-gun to the brain, gassing or electric shock, but shechita requires no stunning while the two main halal monitoring bodies disagree over whether some stunning methods (water-bathing and electric-tonging) are permissible. The law currently makes an exemption to allow for these practices.
Animal rights groups, including those which ultimately want a complete ban on killing animals for food, recognise the propaganda value of this issue, and charge that non-stun slaughter is cruel and painful. Halal and kosher authorities say their methods are in fact more humane. The National Secular Society also grasps the exploitability of this sensitive debate for its fundamentalist crusade against religion. Its spokesperson says:
‘The legal exemption allowing animals to be subjected to non-stun slaughter for religious reasons should end as soon as possible, to protect animal welfare and uphold the principle of one law for all. If ministers are committed to retaining it, labelling requirements would mitigate the damage and allow consumers to make informed choices.’
The ‘damage’? Ninety-nine per cent of cattle, 97 per cent of calves and 90 per cent of chickens in England and Wales are stunned. Only when it comes to sheep are a significant number not stunned (25 per cent). The National Secular Society’s campaign will make it harder to be an observant Muslim or Jew in the UK, driving up the cost of halal and kosher meat and making both more difficult to obtain, and for the devout who still do it, the secularists will be back one day petitioning for an import ban. Eventually, Muslims and Jews will have to choose between their religious customs and the law of the land, between their conscience and their citizenship. The exemption exists to avoid this.
There is a balance to strike between animal rights and the religious freedom of human beings but where the two are irreconcilable, the latter should generally be accorded more weight than the former. That does not excuse wanton or negligent cruelty but it acknowledges that people are a higher priority than animals. Of course, respecting religious freedom does not mean respecting how the religious exercise that freedom. If you want to defend the humble bacon sarnie against the teachings of halal and halakha, get stuck in. Religions, like every other ideology and practice, should be fair game for derision and contempt. They should, however, be able to be practised largely free from state interference.
Dogmatic secularists are far from the only ones lining up to give Jews and Muslims a kicking. The Labour Party, once home to lively philosemitic and Zionist tendencies, now threatens British Jews with a horrific prospect: an antisemitic political party on the brink of government. Right-wingers, meanwhile, take a peevish satisfaction in making Muslims feel unwelcome while demanding they fit in. This is the Muslim assimilation paradox: self-segregate and you threaten social cohesion, become too involved in public life and you are taking over.
When Rod Liddle quips about holding the General Election on a day when ‘Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell’, he is indulging in the downwards-punching satire of the powerless that so delights his legion fans. He is kidding but ‘kidding on the square’, as the late, great Mose Allison would have put it. Middle age is the point where one begins to mistake acid reflux for everyman insight. British Muslims — subjected to more than 3,000 hate incidents last year — are tough enough to withstand blunt barbs of any Tesco Value Ann Coulter, but this yearning to exclude them from civil society speaks to an intolerance of religious and cultural difference.
Difference is a threat to the various authoritarianisms currently auditioning to replace liberalism. Difference leads to dissent and it’s not easy to impose a system of total values when pockets of dowdy particularism hold out against your happy universal ethic. The impulse to stamp them out, to compel a perfect unanimity, tempts anti-liberals of left and right, as well as those that come in the guise of science rather than politics. It is a culture war of the margins, a conquering campaign that will not allow even the smallest pocket of resistance to survive.
Ending the religious exemption to stunning would send devout Muslims and Jews a message that they do no belong here and that their way of life is inconsistent with British values. It would make it substantively more difficult to be a Muslim or Jew in the UK, all without appeasing those bent on eradicating public accommodations of religion. Ban non-stun slaughter and its opponents will return soon for a ban on importing its products. The slippery slope is not always a logical fallacy. It is a plain description of how authoritarians operate.
Pascal had a wager but I think about theism in terms of a consolation prize: if in the end it turns out there is no God, at least we made the National Secular Society miserable along the way. Labour wants to introduce compulsory labelling of non-stunned meat but the next UK Government should otherwise read the secularists chapter and verse on religious liberty. The freedom to worship and practise one’s faith is a cornerstone of liberalism and, embattled though that philosophy might be these days, it remains the surest path to freedom and the good life.