Monday, 20 September 2010

Halal for humanists?

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"Britain goes halal (but nobody tells the public...)", screamed the front page of yesterday's Mail on Sunday. Meat from animals killed according to Islamic ritual slaughter is, the paper told us, now routinely being sold in restaurants, schools and public venues all over the country, without customers being informed.

Of course, the idea of halal in Britain ticks plenty of familiar boxes for the Mail and its readers, perhaps explaining why this was deemed front page news, but the report suggests this should be a cause for concern for animal rights reasons, rather than its connection to non-Western religious practices:
"Under Muslim laws, animals are slaughtered by having their throat slit to allow all the blood to drain out. Animals often die a slow painful death because religious slaughter houses are exempt from laws that require animals to be stunned before killing. Last night there were growing concerns that members of public were unwittingly supporting a cruel form of butchery."
If dhabihah, the method of slaughter used to produce halal meat, does indeed cause disproportionate suffering in the animal, then this is indeed a cause for concern. At the very least, customers have the right to know if the meat they are consuming was produced in this way. But are concerns about halal (and, to a lesser extent, Jewish shechita slaugher), driven primarily by concerns for animal welfare (when did the Mail turn into a leading voice for animal rights?), or by a deeper-lying discomfort with the use of unfamiliar religious methods in modern Britain?

In our current issue, physiologist Harold Hillman argues that research he conducted during his own career into the effects of electrical torture on humans suggests that Western methods of slaughter, which involve the stunning of animals using electrical currents prior to the slitting of the throat, may not be as pain-free as is commonly assumed. He suggests that this has been under-researched, and that scientists must look at it in more detail before we can be certain that pre-stunning leads to a more humane death for animals than halal or kosher methods.

It's a controversial argument, but is it one we should reject? If we are to argue, as many secularists (and yesterday's Mail) do, that religious slaughter has no place in our society, then we must do so based on firm scientific evidence. Hillman seems fairly convinced that stunning does not effectively minimise pain – many, I think, will argue he is wrong about this, but at the very least should we not heed his call for further research? Because if religious slaughter isn't as cruel and inhumane as critics suggest it is, what basis would there be for opposing its use, other than prejudice?

Comment, as always, encouraged and appreciated – I expect lots of you will have opinions on this.

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