My letters to The Times and Matthew Syed

As I wait for the 1630hrs debate on slaughter I revisted this blog. Described as “excellent” by one informed tweeter

The Old Brewer's Blog

Dear Matthew

Below I have copied the letter I wrote to your The Times host on New Year’s Day (2015). I dropped you a private email as a matter of decency as you and your position on halal/kosher meat must be robustly challenged.

I notice that you engaged with Shimon Cohen (@scohen_shimon) and Simon Myerson (@SCynic1) on Twitter and for doing you must be applauded.

The problem is that non-stun slaughter, shechita and zabiha, the terms used by Jews and Muslims respectively, stands up as a humane method of slaughter on its own without theological religious tags. I recently discovered that my dad, a Christian, killed without stunning on his brothers’ farms. His father was a farmer who killed his own livestock to take to market.

It never dawned on me that this would have been so until I expressed my interest in this subject to an older cousin. He…

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Promoting Religious Study (1) – The Sign of the Cross

Government has produced a new standard for the GCSE in religious studies. It’s intention is to improve understanding of other faiths in part as part of its drive towards combatting violent extremism – especially among disaffected young people on the fringes of Islam. The intention is that student should study at least two religions. I guess there is not requirement to show how some religions historically overlap and in some cases have common roots.

The religions to choose from are one of Christianity and Catholic Christianity, and one of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. There is, seemingly, no need to study the three Abrahamic religions as evolutionary strands of a common faith sharing a single Creator God. There is seemingly no need to question a not uncommon yet deep-seated and sometimes extremist Christian belief that Muslims worship a different God – despite Muslims believing that Jews and Christians as well as Muslims are “Peoples of the [one] Book”.

In my post-working life I have taken to studying the history of religious rituals and am following interfaith initiatives. The two elements go together. They complement one another. They provide a basis for interfaith discussion and a reason to discussion apparently odd religious practices with people from different religions. To be honest I have not associated with any Jews in my lifetime and only latterly in my working career associated with Muslims. I was raised in a Christian environment but have led a pretty secular life. I am prepared to describe myself as a Christian but I am not religious. The point is that I am not really bogged down with a great deal of religious baggage and critically I do not wear blinkers. My study is interesting – especially with the application of a little lateral thinking.

Prompting my study is a realisation that most, if not all, religious ritual must have a practical, dare I say profane, antecedent or origin. That origin may have been “lost” over time but it can be teased out.

Anyone who has read my earlier blogs may well have picked up my interest in non-slaughter – so-called “religious slaughter” or “ritual slaughter”. Both phrases are misnomers and I do not want to develop the concept of sacrifice here and now except to say that sacrifice seems to be associated with many religions and in turn we have cleansing rituals.

The statement “cleanliness is next to godliness” has its roots in sacrifice and a need for strict hygiene. That can be developed fully at another time but for now many people know that Muslims perform ritual ablutions before they pray. They literally wash the exposed parts of their body before they pray formally. Why?

Today the practice can only be symbolic. It has no practical value but has huge spiritual significance. Hindus have a cleansing ritual. And so do Christians but few, if any, will connect their rituals to Islamic ablutions. Few will connect their rituals to sacrifice and the need for hygiene. There is now a barrier between two related faiths because followers or practitioners have lost touch with their historical roots.

I want to try to repair some of this loss.

Baptismal fonts are traditionally placed within the main entrances of older churches. It wasn’t until very recently that I clocked this. Traditionally it is to remind you of your reception into Christianity – namely your baptism. Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches often have a stoup near the main entrance (I have seen them at all entrances). A stoup contains “holy water” and is provided to allow visitors to make the “sign of the cross” as a reminder of their baptism.

Stoups and baptismal fonts apparently have different functions. Really?

On one cathedral visit I made I learned that churches should only have one font. I was informed that that cathedral had two. It was the resting place for a ship’s bell, HMS Salisbury. Traditionally, it appears ships’ bell were used for baptisms but we will pass over this. More strikingly the font at Salisbury Cathedral is a huge running water feature. Although it’s in the centre of the nave, for me it had huge symbolic significance.

How then is it permissible to have a stoup and a font? I have no idea but it may just demonstrate how Christianity has lost touch with its roots.

A little over a year ago I followed a Muslim family out of Lichfield Cathedral. I had already made a link between the Christian Baptism and Islamic ablutions. Significantly, for practical reasons the font at Lichfield has been moved its north transept leaving the original spot marked by a circle of floor tiles that look odd and out of place.

I just had to engage the family and point out the link between the baptism and Islamic ablutions and why fonts are traditionally by the main entrance. Without prompting and no other obvious cue the father described the “four points of ablution”. These briefly are:

  1. The head;
  2. The feet;
  3. The left arm and hand; and
  4. The right arm and hand.

As he went through the motions, as it were, he mused “the sign of the cross”. This was a lightbulb moment.

I have stated my view that most, if not all, religious ritual has a practical origin and here we have the origin to the “sign of the cross”. What other reason can there be?

Baptism takes its roots from a need for priests literally to cleanse themselves before performing sacrificial duties. They like as not may have done so in a flowing stream close to its source and assuredly free from animal excrement. John baptised Jesus in the River Jordan. The Ganges is sacred to Hindus but is not now clean, at least not where modern ceremonies are held. Salisbury Cathedral has a running water feature for its font as does St Martin Church next to Birmingham’s Bullring. Even if it’s modest the St Martin’s font is the first thing you see on entry (or it would be were it not for a floral display). It is literally in front of you as you enter.

Christians mostly do not perform literal ablutions before prayer. Catholics, however, often make the sign of the cross. You often see footballers make the sign as the run onto the football pitch. Symbolically Christians are cleansing their minds of evil and untoward thoughts before entering a place of worship or, in the case of footballers, making a quick prayer asking for help in overcoming adversity and committing themselves to a clean and fair game.

In this blog I have pointed to rituals within religion that must have a common root or origin but over time have evolved to become distinct and apparently very different.

As I wrote, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. So it may well be and it may well explain a number of other peculiar attitudes and beliefs.

The Provenance of Halal

Believe it or not I am not a halal expert but I am learning and am getting quite good even if I say so myself. But enough of the bragging because I really want to highlight that in halal animal welfare and food hygiene rules are (or should be) very nuanced, very nuanced indeed.

The title of this post is inspired by reading that strictly speaking halal meat should remain in sight of a Muslim at all times. Presumably this alludes to concepts of not trusting food from strangers who cannot be relied on to ensure that your meat is wholesome. An equivalent modern rule may be not leaving your drinks unattended in a night club. Whose knows who may have spiked them? Security seals on food packaging are designed to prevent (or make it very difficult for) someone with an axe to grind contaminating the contents.

In the context of meat production we are talking about buying your meat from the a butcher that you know and who is open about source its source. The more locally it has been produced the better.

We are talking about transparency and security of production.

Not many moons ago we had the horsemeat scandal. Several processed products sold by several large retailers were found to be contaminated with horsemeat. Seemingly the meat used in these products came from a number of places in Europe and ended up in large centralised food processing factories. There is no possible way those products can be labelled with details of the sources of the meat. It is not as if the village butcher had raised a steer, killed it and used the meat from that one animal to make all the minced beef he is selling over a period of a few days.

The provenance concept goes further back. In the secular world we do not – or should not – eat meat from animals whose health status we do not know. It extends back to animal rearing and indeed what animals may not be good to eat.

It seems a long time ago but back in 1986 the UK was hit by BSE, or mad cow disease. I needn’t develop the science of the condition except to sat that its sources seems to have been linked to feeding cattle, which are vegetarian ruminants, feeds fortified with (or contaminated with) rendered and highly processed animal protein.

BSE was bad enough for cattle but it apparently spread into humans in the form of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD.

Halal and kosher codes prohibit eating pig meat. Pigs forage for food and will eat almost anything. They are prone to liver fluke, which can transfer to humans and clearly is a public health issue. Bottom feeding fish are similarly prohibited.

The codes dictate that we need to know what the birds, fish and animals we eat ate themselves.

One prompt for this post if the release of CCTV video footage that was apparently taken covertly in a northern abattoir, Bowood Lamb, by Animal Aid, a charity which ultimately promotes a vegan lifestyle but has a genuine concern for animal welfare and abuse.

Questions have to be asked about the way in which the material was obtained before too many conclusions should be drawn from it. That said, the camera never lies and there were issues within the facilities but were they widespread? We don’t know. The evidence was apparently not presented to the public after fair appraisal. Animal Aid collected evidence only over three days. How typical was the evidence?

I do not want to defend the business operators here but I am not going to pronounce guilt as a kneejerk response to what I have seen. One thought is that all abattoirs encounter welfare issues to a greater or lesser extent. Animal Aid has covertly operated in ten facilities. One was RSPCA accredited. Only one Bowood Lamb was slaughtering for the non-stun halal market and Animal AId claim they did not know that at the outset. They clearly did not set out to expose halal.

I am not going to round on Bowood Lamb because I do not know how typical the covert footage was, nor how their overall standards compare with other similar facilities.

I wrote above about the need for transparency. UK practices between the farm gate and slaughter rooms of abattoirs is far from transparent. Recent Defra/FSA (the government Food Standards Agency) data collected for their Animal Welfare Survey of 2013 show that few abattoirs allow covert observation of stun/slaughter rooms by the official veterinarians. Few have CCTV. Bowood, apparently, does have CCTV and that poses additional questions for others to address on another day.

I am researching the history of what we call “ritual slaughter”. We actually mostly misunderstand its purpose but within days of reading about Bowood I found this statement.

“It is essential that the beast was a willing victim, and that no signs of bad omen were obvious during the ceremony.” (Religion in Roam Britain, Martin Henig. 1995, p3

I guess we are not so much talking about beasts giving informed consent but we are talking about their refusal to move forward, their baulking with fear of what awaits them. At Bowood clearly something wasn’t right. The sheep were certainly under stress.

This raises a trading standards question.

  • Can the carcasses from the animals videoed legitimately be  sold as halal?

Likewise

  • Can any animal that required more than the absolute minimum encouragement (say, little more than a slight push) to move forward, even from stun slaughter, be traded as halal?

Going back to the top of this post i made a reference to halal codes requiring meat to be under the control of Muslims at all times. The operators at Bowood are not Muslim and apparently only employ two Muslims. Four employees were suspended after the Animal Aid video. At least two, therefore, were not Muslims. That need not be an issue but prompts questions about the awareness training afforded non-Muslims in facilities like this.

Jewish shochet train over seven years. They are not allowed to slaughter in anger. Thus, the mental welfare of shochet is important. In any industrial slaughter facility the sheer number of animals being killed must surely desensitise the operators. Is this good? At the point of kill the slaughterer should experience a sense of guilt at taking a life “that belongs to the gods” (Henig). That why the prayer, the bismallah  should be said as the animal is cut.

Apparently at Bowood spectacles were drawn on sheep as they bled. Slaughterers were laughing. This does not feel very halal (and even less kosher).

Before I close I have to refer to conversations with the local halal pizza shop manager. The ham is turkey ham, but the menu board does not say this. When I asked if the meat was obtained from stunned or non-stunned birds he couldn’t say. Most birds destined for the halal market must be stunned because of the sheer number involved. I haven’t yet asked if the supplier has been licensed by a halal certification board/agency, or even if the restaurant is licensed. I have learned that there is self certification. Seemingly a slaughter operator need only say his operation is “halal” and not use formal external quality assurers.

This post may help others to develop a small but better understanding of halal codes than the reports in the various news media ever aspire to achieve.  Equally It may not. I have asked questions without any attempt to address them. Hopefully the opening analogies taken from the secular world painted a help backdrop to the halal concept.

For me I am left thinking, as I have some time, that best halal (and kosher) slaughter practice does not scale up easily.

In this post I have avoided the stun v non-stun debate. I want to show that halal codes refer to much, much more than the final act of slaughter. In highlighting BSE and the more recent horsemeat scandal I wanted to show that the application of halal codes may have spared us BSE and possibly also the horsemeat fraud.

Hopefully I have also asked questions about how halal codes are understood and applied. Muslims should perhaps ask “How halal is halal?”

In my mind the label “halal” should be a mark of transparency and quality.