Halal Hysteria: How Outrage About M&S Ready Meals Co-opted Radical Right Rhetoric

The radical right is once again using the fact a food retailer has begun selling halal meat as an excuse to allege "creeping sharia law."

Chris Allen is Associate Professor in Hate Studies at the University of Leicester, UK.

In October, M&S announced that it was to become the first major food retailer in the UK to launch a range of own-brand halal ready meals. Available in 36 stores nationwide, the range was certified by the Halal Food Authority and included some of the retailer’s best-selling prepared meals. From chicken arrabbiata to chicken and mushroom tagliatelle, chicken and leek bake to chicken hotpot, the range is a response to the growing market for halal versions of ‘non-Asian’ dishes, With this in mind, M&S stated it hoped the halal range would “deliver real commercial impact”.

As with M&S’s decision to sell hijabs as part of its school-wear range, opposition was vociferous and an online campaign was duly launched. Using the hashtag #BoycottMarksAndSpencer, arguments for being against the halal ready meals ranged from concerns about animal welfare through claims of being ‘disgusted’ at the retailer’s thinking through to claiming halal slaughter to be ‘barbaric’. Most striking however was the extent to which that being expressed had a clear resonance with how halal has found form in the rhetoric of the radical right’s vilification of Muslims and the religion of Islam in recent years.

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Halal Hysteria

The first time halal meat prompted notable public outrage in the UK was in 2014 as a response to the Sun newspaper’s headline, “Halal Secret of Pizza Express“. Claiming to expose the restaurant chain for duping customers into eating halal chicken without telling them, it subsequently emerged that the ‘secret’ being referred to was far from a secret. As it emerged, Pizza Express had been publicizing the fact it used halal chicken for two years and had tweeted about it on a number of occasions.

Despite it being something of a non-story, the British media stoked the fires of the growing halal hysteria. To this extent, the BBC reported that Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, and Co-op were all covertly selling halal New Zealand lamb. The Daily Mail followed this up by voicing its concerns for the ‘millions’ of Brits who were eating halal meat against their wishes. Evidenced as the ‘stealth’ takeover of Britain’s supermarkets by Muslims, the Mail published photos from a halal-certified slaughterhouse alongside the comment “more than 100 sheep appeared to writhe in agony after being ritually killed”.

Another news story to add to the hysteria at the time claimed Subway, the fast-food chain had ‘banned’ pork products in almost 200 of its stores following pressure from Muslims. Like M&S, Subway’s decision was commercially driven: the stores in question being located in areas where there was a high density of Muslims and where pork products did not sell. While overlooked in the media’s coverage, the decision was rather more about maximizing profits from Muslims than it was anything else.

Creeping Sharia

As halal hysteria grew, the resonance of the ongoing public debates with widely used tropes about Muslims and Islam within the radical right milieu became ever more apparent. As regards the radical right, one of the earliest examples of halal meat and associated practices being used to vilify Muslims was evident in the British National Party’s (BNP) 2005 local government election campaign. Titled “Islam Out of Britain”, the campaign claimed that as halal slaughter was inhumane the BNP would lobby for it to be banned. More than a decade on – and despite being largely defunct – the BNP continues to lobby for its banning. Nowadays an avowed supporter of animal welfare as opposed to an Islamophobic political party, it claimed earlier this year that Belgium had adopted its policy on halal slaughter.

Like the BNP, so too did the English Defence League (EDL) actively oppose halal meat and associated practices. Two a after it was established, the EDL launched its ‘Halal Campaign’ in 2011. Premised on the argument that halal slaughter was cruel – and importantly, far crueler than kosher practices – the campaign was indistinguishable from the public hysteria that ensued years later. Identifying stores and restaurants that sold halal meat without labeling it, the EDL called on its supporters – and indeed others – to name and shame while also boycotting them. For the EDL, the practice of non-labeling was evidence of a much wider and far more insidious process that was being engineered by Muslims to impose its practices on British society. In the words of Tommy Robinson, leader of the EDL at the time, ‘creeping sharia’ was pervasive and ongoing in Britain.

However, it is the opposition espoused by Britain First to halal meat and slaughter that affords the best opportunity to understand how this functions as regards vilifying Muslims. Having uploaded a video to its website in 2016, it showed the group’s ‘invasion’ of a halal certified slaughterhouse in London. Showing one of the group’s leaders, Jayda Fransen, forcing her way into the building the video shows her: claiming Islam is ‘disgusting’ and ‘vile’; calling halal slaughter barbaric; rejecting the need for halal slaughterhouses in the UK; stating that Allah is a fake god, Satan; accusing the owners of the slaughterhouse as funding terrorism; before declaring Britain to be a Christian country. What is most striking about this is the extent to which halal is – for the radical right at least – symbolic of the many problems attributed to Muslims and Islam.

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Embedded Islamophobia

As before, it would be wrong to suggest that all those voicing opposition to M&S’s new range of halal ready meals either empathize or support the radical right. Indeed, far from it. There can be no doubt whatsoever in this respect; certain basic welfare standards should be upheld and there is an argument to be made for better labeling. Having said that, whether any form of killing an animal can ever be truly considered humane is a debate that needs to be had albeit elsewhere.

Noting that it would be wrong to dismiss all opposition out of hand, however, neither detracts nor denies that significant elements of the recurrent halal hysteria in the UK’s public spaces are Islamophobic and duly function to Other Muslims and their communities. A convenient and timely proxy issue for those alleging that Muslims are ‘taking over’, the similarities between the sinister rhetoric of the radical right and those currently opposed to the M&S ready-meals are both stark and real. Given that there is a far more menacing undertow to what is playing out in the public spaces, it is important not to conflate the legitimate with the illegitimate nor to let the radical right manipulate the situation for ideological gain. That M&S is unlikely to be the last major retailer to introduce its own brand halal-certified products, so too is it unlikely that halal hysteria s going to go away any time soon.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Opinion // CARR / Radical Right / United Kingdom