Type
Article
Category
Food
France
Racism

Gastronomic racism in France and Australia: food practices in the war on Muslims

On March 18, the Great Mosques of Paris, Lyon and Evry issued a press release expressing their dismay at the French government’s decision to ban the halal slaughter ritual. A few days later, the French Ministry of Agriculture denied that such a ban was in the works and asserted the continued permissibility of the halal method of animal slaughter, which – like the Kosher one – requires slitting the animal’s throat without first stunning them. After several days of fear and confusion, the Muslim minority in France was ‘reassured’ that the feared measures would not take place.

The stigma French right-wingers want to impose on those who eat halal reminds us of the criminalisation of halal food buyers and consumers in Australia. Both campaigns are predicated on Islamophobia and share the ultimate goal of exclusion, fuelled by fear of ‘creeping’ Islamisation. The fantasy described by Gassan Hage in White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society that drives white supremacists in the two nations equates the presence of Islam with the threat of the disappearance of the white race.

Both movements use the same rhetoric in order to associate halal food with a so-called ‘green scare’ – the Islamist scare – and regard halal food as a cornerstone to the ‘Muslim problem’. For French and Australian Islamophobes, eating halal, going to mosques or wanting to build mosques are all worrying signs of the ‘Muslim enemy within.’ For anti-Muslim racists, the first step to contain the ‘Muslim threat’ is therefore to control what adherents of this ‘scare religion’ eat and their attempts to sell food that funds ‘suspicious’ agendas.

Anti-halal groups in both countries rely on the same misleading populist discourse, designed to convince the public that it’s being deceived into eating halal food and, by implication, into supporting Islamist extremism. In 2017, the opposition to non-Muslims being made to eat halal meat unwittingly was a key message of the far-right candidate for the 2017 French Presidential Election, Marine Le Pen, who back in 2012 had falsely claimed that all meat in Ile-de-France was halal. In Australia, Kirralie Smith, a leading figure of anti-Islam party Australian Liberty Alliance, stated that halal-certified products were not clearly labelled, causing consumers to buy these products without their consent (and was sued for defamation as a result).

Le Pen pledged, if elected, to ban halal meat altogether. This stance is reminiscent of Pauline Hanson, who in the lead up to the 2015 Queensland Election stated that she planned to prohibit Australian companies from paying for halal certification. In France, Le Pen routinely asks French citizens not to eat halal products, which she considers a danger to the ‘Frenchness’ of the country. Hanson has held a similar position for years, as illustrated for instance by her call to boycott halal-certified Cadbury chocolate eggs for Easter in 2017. At the time, she told the public without any evidence that ‘98 percent of Australians don’t want halal certification’. One Nation’s policy platform at the time included the following statement:

By buying Halal certified products, it means that you are financially supporting the Islamisation of Australia, including Sharia Law, which opposes our Australian Constitution and democracy.

Le Pen and Hanson have both repeatedly asserted their opposition to immigration from Muslim countries and the wearing of Muslim religious symbols. Both have constructed a conspiracy myth in order to legitimise their stigmatization of Muslim rituals. Both present themselves as guardians of national values and as guarantors of national resistance to covert Islamisation. Their aim is to show that Islam is not compatible with their societies, and to send one clear message for the Muslim minority in their respective societies: Either you assimilate, or you go back to where you came from – even if you happen to have been born here.

Food practices and food rituals are central to this strategy, and have been part of the French war on Muslims for a long time. In 2017, the Marseille city authorities took a number of measures to make it difficult for snack bars to get commercial leases. While kebab street vendors were not explicitly singled out, the owners of the snack bars located in the business district were overwhelmingly North African Muslims. Rim-Sarah Allouane called these measures ‘gastronomic racism’.

French anti-halal groups and politicians, like their Australian counterparts, consider the act of eating halal food to be a barrier to social inclusion. This notion of inclusion finds its roots in the colonial idea of assimilation: Muslims living in both France and Australia are blamed for their ‘refusal to integrate’ in the otherwise ‘peaceful and harmonious’ fabric of their societies. However, as Shakira Hussein has documented, the anti-halal rhetoric shows the deeper racist roots of this discourse, by portraying the consumption of halal food as a disgusting and abhorrent experience from which non-Muslims should be protected.

In this discourse, the food that Muslims eat becomes a source of fear and disgust. Beside using the language of consumer rights in order to persuade consumers that they are unwittingly supporting radicalisation programs through the money they spend on their groceries, it incites them to take part in the patriotic mission of protecting the nation. Not eating halal has become a part of one’s ‘duty’ towards their mother country, a shield against ‘Muslim invasion’ and the only way to save the community from the jaws of fundamentalism.

Probably nothing can better illustrate this sense of ‘responsible citizenship’ than the words of Kirralie Smith: ‘As a wife and a mother of three who does the shopping, I thought I could do something. I could take some form of responsibility for what we bring into our household’ (quoted in Hussein 91). National Party MP George Christensen supported the call, stating: ‘I’m backing Kirralie Smith because she is raising legitimate concerns that many members of the public share around halal certification, what the money behind halal certification actually goes to.’ Jacqui Lambie also stressed the need to know whether the money paid for halal certification is misused to fund ISIS and asked why there is no legal requirement to disclose halal certification fees.

The call to ban halal food was central to the 2015 ‘Reclaim Australia’ rallies. Voicing her support, Hanson stated at the time that ‘the money goes into Islamic organizations and has been connected to the Muslim brotherhood in France.’ Despite the lack of any evidence to support these claims, the racist perception of a link between halal food and Islamist extremism persists.

The Australian anti-halal campaign, like the French one, aims at criminalising and further excluding the already marginalised Muslim minority. While racists pretend to act in the name of national unity, their words and deeds show us how food becomes a means to distinguish a superior ‘us’ from an inferior ‘them’ – the unwanted and unwelcome Arab and Muslim Other.

 

Image: Flickr

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Dr Jyhene Kebsi is a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Macquarie University.

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Comments

  1. I am one of Jyhene’s students and I think this article sheds light on one of the many nuanced ways that countries like France and Australia are implementing racist regimes (in the name of ‘nationalism’).

    I thought it was very well written, with great links and comparisons between Australia and France.

    An issue that seems so small is actually so important to address. This particular issue regarding the ban of Halal foods is clearly part of a much bigger fear of Islamic extremism and ISIS – which does not represent the entire Muslim population.

    We need to keep discussing these political, social and personal problems.

  2. Brilliant article Jyhene!

    An insightful and evocative discussion about normalised Islamophobia under the guise of conservative nationalism.

    We need to foster more dialogue around this issue…

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