LES LILAS, France -- There could scarcely be a spectacle more French than elderly matrons and young fathers vying for choice cuts of veal on a weekend morning. But the popularity of Les Jumeaux, an artisanal butcher in this Paris suburb, is something of a feat.
All the meat here -- from the bison and the boudin blanc to the Wagyu beef -- is halal. And the 28-year-old twin brothers who run the shop have managed to attract a diverse clientele and critical acclaim at a moment when there is intense resistance to halal meat in Western Europe.
A regional government in Austria recently proposed that people buying halal or kosher meat should have to register with authorities. There have been periodic "scares" in Britain over customers being sold unlabeled halal meat. Until a constitutional court overturned it, Poland imposed a ban on halal and kosher slaughter. The party platform of the ultra-conservative Alternative for Germany includes a similar provision.
The argument in some cases has been driven by animal welfare activists. In others, the debate is more about the perceived quality of the meat. And often underlying it all are essential questions of identity and belonging.
For meat to be classified as halal -- meaning, broadly, permissible according to Islam -- the animal in question must be slaughtered in a certain way: with a sharp incision to the front of the throat, and with a blessing.
It is similar to kosher slaughter practices that comply with Jewish dietary law, although the two religions have different rules about what parts of an animal may be eaten.
The animal welfare fight centers on whether halal slaughter is more or less humane than other practices.
In Europe, there has been a movement -- enshrined in European Union law -- to require that animals be stunned before they are killed, so that they are unconscious and do not feel pain or distress. Exceptions can be granted, however, for religious practice. And critics charge that halal slaughter causes unnecessary suffering at the time of death.
Defenders note that many animals slaughtered according to halal practice in Europe -- including more than 84 percent of halal slaughter in Britain -- are, in fact, pre-stunned, which is widely considered acceptable if done in a way that an animal can be returned to normal consciousness. (By contrast, kosher slaughter prohibits stunning.)
Islamic traditions also pay specific attention to animal well-being -- not only at the moment of death but throughout life. Animals are not to be caged or abused. No animal should have to suffer the distress of seeing another animal killed. And the knife used for slaughter should be as sharp as possible, with the idea that a swift, precise cut minimizes pain.
For some Muslim consumers, halal products signal ethical production that other meats may not have undergone. "It's understood that they have certain attitudes," said Bogac Ergene, a historian at the University of Vermont who co-wrote Halal Food: A History. "It's a comfort for a Muslim to see some kind of halal packaging."
As the global market for halal meats has grown, a number of producers have turned to factory farming. And undercover videos have revealed mistreatment at certain halal slaughterhouses.
But halal defenders say those cases point to systemic problems within the industry rather than problems specific to halal, and they suggest that animal welfare activists are somewhat cynical in their focus on halal.
"They need some victories and the easiest way to get them is to focus on soft targets, i.e. targets which are marginal in terms of volume," Fethallah Otmani, managing director of AVS, France's largest halal certifier, said. "Besides, it's an even more interesting target as anything related to Islam is likely to receive greater political and media attention."
Another line of resistance to halal meats relates to quality. In France, insistence on halal meats is seen by some as a rejection of the centuries-old artisanal traditions that have helped to establish the nation's gastronomic superiority. Some reports have claimed that the halal market is like a clearance sale, offering "old animals, especially sheep, past their usefulness" and "animals whose physical characteristics exclude them from standard marketing channels."
These are myths that the brothers who run Les Jumeaux have had to push against.
"I am Muslim. I am an Arab. But I am also producing products of quality," said Slim Loumi of Les Jumeaux, noting that the shop produces the same kind of brochettes and blanquettes de veau beloved by many French customers. "We are 100 percent halal, but we really are artisanal, and in the French tradition."
Among the most highly debated topics is public school cafeterias and whether French republican values permit observant Muslim and Jewish students to skip weekly pork offerings in favor of "substitution meals."
On the conservative side of the political spectrum, the answer has been a resounding "non." This year, Julien Sanchez, the conservative mayor of Beaucaire, in southern France, outlawed alternatives to pork in local schools. "My decision is so that the Republic wins, that in France the Republic has priority and not religion," Sanchez told The Washington Post in January.
Conservative Mayor Nicole Goueta in the Paris suburb of Colombes has launched a crusade against halal establishments, insisting that businesses cater to all customers rather than a select few. One small grocery that did not sell pork or alcohol was forced to close.
Rodizio Brazil, a halal churrascaria, has managed to resist the mayor's demand to start serving alcohol -- but has been repeatedly denied a permit for a lucrative outside terrace, according to its proprietor.
"Why do you want me to serve alcohol in this establishment? If I rent an apartment, it would be the same thing as demanding I keep cheese in my fridge when I don't like cheese," said Mohamed Boucherit, 36.
For halal butchers and, farther down the supply chain, restaurant proprietors such as Boucherit, the halal problem -- if there even is a problem -- is hardly about identity. In communities with large Muslim populations, it is a basic economic calculation.
In Colombes, Boucherit said, roughly 70 percent of the community buys halal meat. "There's a very strong demand," he said. "As a businessman, why would I do something counter to the market?"
If, for some, halal represents an example of the failure of Muslim assimilation, it also contains the potential for greater integration, through products that are available to all.
When it is marketed as "wholesome, healthy, ethical and nutritious, halal can have meaning beyond the Muslim community," said Febe Armanios, the other co-author of Halal: A History and a historian at Middlebury College.
"For us, what matters is quality," Loumi said. "We are open to everybody."
Halal butcher shops line the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis neighborhood of Paris.
Slim Loumi (front) and his twin brother, Karim, are the owners of Les Jumeaux (“the twins”), a halal butcher shop in Les Lilas, in the suburbs of Paris.
Religion on 10/20/2018
Print Headline: Discrimination or assimilation?