Understanding halal food production and consumption in ‘the West’. Beyond dominant narratives
From Firenze University Press Journal: Cambio
John Lever, University of Huddersfield
During the second half of the twentieth century the economic foundations of Western diets were transformed in ways that created possibilities to eat in much more varied ways (Warde 2016). In the intervening decades, ethnic food has become a central element of food markets in consumer societies (Belasco and Scranton 2001). The ongoing expansion of the global halal market must be seen in this light, and there is now an emerging body of research exploring how Muslims consume and practice halal in an everyday context in «the West» (Bergeaud-Blackler et al. 2015; Fischer 2011; Lever 2013; Lever and Fischer 2018; Siddiqui 2012; Toğuşlu 2015).
n Arabic, the word halal literally means «permissible» or «lawful». In relation to food in particular it signifies «purity» and is protected by certain Islamic principles, most notably the avoidance of pork and alcohol (Ber-geaud-Blackler et al. 2015; Armanios and Ergene 2018). There are also important considerations about the slaughter of animals for food. Indeed, given the prior sacrificial significance of slaughter in near eastern culture (Fischler 2011), it has long been accepted that to be fit for human consumption meat must come from slaughtered animals. Over time, however, differences have emerged between People of the Book ( Jews, Christians and Muslims) about the acceptability of stunning animals before slaughter (Lever 2019). Until recently, all meat produced by Christian and Jews was considered acceptable by the vast majority of UK Muslims (Lever and Miele 2012). In recent decades, however, the standardised industrial practice of stunning animals before slaughter has been contested by a growing minority of Muslims in line with controversy about war in the Middle East and debates about what it means to live a religious life in Western societies (Marranci 2009; Siddiqui 2012; Toğuşlu 2015; Armanios and Ergene 2018; Lever 2019).
In this context, halal has become highly complex, emotive and controversial — with halal meat in particular being seen as an indicator of the growing presence of Islam and what are seen to be ‘barbaric’ Muslim food practic-es (Mukherjee 2014; Grumett 2015). In the UK, much of the controversy revolves around the production of halal meat from non-stunned animals and perceived threats to animal welfare and national identity (Lever 2019), with much of the halal literature focusing on the underlying issues (that is, certification and methods of slaughter) (e.g. Lever and Miele 2012; Fuseini et al. 2020). In this paper, I move beyond the insights provided in this literature to demonstrate how, as the UK halal market has expanded, and the range of halal dining options has increased, Muslim consumers have been presented with increasingly difficult food choices.Unlike other ethnic foods and cuisines, halal is not associated with a particular cuisine or national territory (Armanios and Ergene 2018). In the last decade or so, it has thus become a particularly attractive option for fast food restaurants, discounting pizza and pasta chains, and a wide range of eating establishments. While a number of Muslim requirements have already been met in the global food industry to allay Muslim anxiety about contamination (from pork and alcohol) during industrial production (Bergeaud-Blackler et al. 2015; Armanios and Ergene 2018), these developments have increased market complexity and consumer anxiety considerably. Within the sociology of food literature, the notion informalisation is often used in this context to illustrate the dissolution of structures underpinning the proliferation of food choice (Warde 1997; Warde and Martens 2000; Warde 2016; Paddock et al. 2017). While these accounts provide useful insights, they fail to fully recognise, I contend, Wouters’ (1977; 1986; 2008; 2011) claim that processes of informalisation increase demands for greater self-discipline and emotional self-management within the contours of the civilising process (Elias 2012). Indeed, as questions of what to eat, where to eat and how to comport the body become more open to judgement, Wouters’ work suggests that the need for more elaborate forms of justification increases, and that consumers require greater self-discipline when deciding what and what not to eat.
Drawing on this conceptual apparatus and body of work, in this paper I explore the increasingly complex food choices Muslim consumers encounter when deciding what is and is not acceptable halal practice.The paper starts off by outlining the research context and the methods employed. It then explores how notions of anxiety, anomie, and informalisation have been used in the sociology of food literature to contextualise the dis-solution of structures governing food production and the proliferation of food choice from the late 20th century onwards. This is followed by an investigation of the ways in which traditional halal practices (arriving via migrants from South Asia) intersected with various developments in the food industry and global politics to lay the foundations for the emergence of the UK halal market. Drawing on empirical material from a study of halal production and consumption in Manchester, I then provide a detailed analysis of the changing practice of halal consumers, which helps us to move beyond simple discursive understandings of halal as a ‘barbaric’ practice. I conclude with some reflections on the implications of this analysis for understandings of consumption practices and the future trajectory of the civilising process.
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