France: New book claims halal is ‘invented tradition’

© Philippe Huguen, AFP | The global halal industry generates €1.214 trillion ($1.3 trillion) a year

Text by Assiya HAMZA  – France 24

The halal market hasn’t stopped growing since the 1980s. But according to anthropologist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, author of the new book “The Halal Market or The Invention of a Tradition”, buying halal is not a religious obligation.

Food, clothing cosmetics, banks… The halal certification label is everywhere. But is it a religious obligation? Not according to Bergeaud-Blackler.

Although the Koran and Sunnah (the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed) explicitly prohibit pork, blood and alcohol, they don’t impose any rules dictating behaviour.

There is, however, a condition regarding the proper slaughter of animals, which should be killed “…during the hunt, or bled out either at the throat or sternum,” Bergeaud-Blackler writes in her book.

The halal market is an “invented tradition” that first appeared in the early 1980s, she explains, furthering a theory previously developed by British historian Eric Hobsbawm.

“Eating halal is presented today as an obligatory practice for Muslims, even though the term didn’t exist in the Muslim world before it was exported by developed countries,” she told FRANCE 24.

According to Bergeaud-Blackler, who has studied halal for the past 20 years, the market has flourished especially in non-Muslim countries partly because of immigration.

“There’s a recent poll by the Montaigne Institute that shows 40 percent of France’s Muslim population thinks eating halal is a pillar of Islam, which is false,” she said.

In reality, the halal food industry is a product of the “random convergence of neo-fundamentalism and neo-liberalism” during the early 1980s, Bergeaud-Blackler explained.

“At the time, these two ideologies were dominant on the international scene. Their convergence would change the theological definition of halal from ‘recommended’ to ‘required’, which is a hallmark of fundamentalism,” she said.

The rise of halal can be traced back to post-revolution Iran in 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini banned food imports, in particular meat, from non-Muslim countries. The supreme leader was later forced to reconsider his position, however, after an embargo led to food shortages.

Khomeini decided that if Iran had to start importing meat from the West again, it would insist on the “Islamisation” of the slaughtering process. Although protocols were established for the halal food industry, they were never made official by religious leaders.

“The market is facilitated by the existence of laws in secular countries that recognise religious slaughter, which was initially established for the Jewish diaspora,” Bergeaud-Blackler said.

Other Muslim countries, such as the Gulf States, Malaysia and Turkey, soon followed in Iran’s footsteps, leading to an increasingly complex and expansive set of rules. And thus the Muslim consumer was born.

A coveted market in France

The halal market has become the figurative goose that lays the golden egg in France, which is home to around 4 to 5 million Muslims – one of the largest populations in Europe.

It has an estimated value of between €5.5 billion and €7 billion per year, according to the Solis Agency, which specialises in ethno-religious market research.

Because there is no law regulating halal meat, an increasing number of organisations have emerged offering to certify products, which must be slaughtered and blessed by a slaughterman accredited by one of three mosques in either Paris, its southern suburb of Evry, or the southwestern city of Lyon. The only issue is that anyone can open a certification business, regardless of whether they have religious approval.

“Producers are required to hire a slaughterman accredited by one of the three mosques, but are under no obligation to use a halal certification agency,” Bergeaud-Blackler writes in her book. “There’s nothing keeping them from labelling their own products as certified halal.”

Although the halal market has been rocked by numerous scandals over the years – including falsely labelled products or traces of pork found in merguez sausages – its success is undiminished in France.

If anything, more and more people are buying halal, and singing its praises. The industry’s growing popularity has raised fears, however, that it might be used by religious extremists such as Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood movement to promote their interpretation of Islam.

Threat of religious extremism

Eating exclusively halal not only runs the risk of cutting consumers off from public spaces, but also other forms of social interaction, according to Bergeaud-Blackler.

“Dividing a space in two between what is allowed and what is forbidden creates social anxiety and leads to avoidance,” she writes. “When you eat exclusively halal, you might not invite someone who doesn’t eat halal to your house out of fear he or she might offer to host you in return. It’s all the more true that these acts of avoidance are accompanied by a rhetoric rejecting food. The confusion between halal and purity is worrying.”

Bergeaud-Blackler also warned against what she calls “umnique” halal (a term derived from the Arabic word for community, ummah), or halal food that is made for Muslims, by Muslims.

Until 2005, non-Muslims were free to make halal products as long as they respected international norms and rules. Since then, the Gulf States and Turkey have accused the West of seizing control of halal production standards, and have launched a sort of “techno-religious one-upmanship”.

“They believe they should be in control of halal production standards, from how it is financed to how it is consumed, thereby ushering in a global Islamic economy that includes all Muslim countries, as well as [immigrant Muslim communities],” she said.

For some, the act of buying and consuming halal products is akin to conforming to the precepts of the Prophet. In other words, it’s a whole new way to reach eternal paradise.