The politics of meat and Muslims in election-year France

Conservative Marine Le Pen recently alleged that President Sarkozy had bowed to 'Islamic radicals.' It may be election-year gold, but restricting or demonizing Islamic practices could push disaffected youth toward those with radical agendas, says author Jonathan Laurence. 

Zacharie Scheurer/AP
French far-right National Front party leader and candidate for the 2012 French presidential elections, Marine Le Pen (c.) listens to cattle farmers during a visit to the Agriculture Fair in Paris, Friday, March 2.
Bob Edme/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (c.) waves as he enters his car surrounded by security staff, in Bayonne, southwestern France, Thursday, March 1.

You know it’s an election year in France when the far-right presidential candidate starts talking about meat and Muslims.

Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, recently alleged that French President Nicholas Sarkozy had bowed to “Islamic radicals,” in particular about how Muslims butcher animals for consumption. Ms. Le Pen – who has often called for stricter immigration laws and warned about “creeping sharia (Islamic law)” in the past – argues that the influence of Muslim minorities was so strong that today all the meat available for purchase in Paris is “halal.” According to cultural practices, Muslims only eat the meat of animals that have had their throats cut, allowing the blood to drain away.

"This situation is deception and the government has been fully aware of it for months," Le Pen said at a National Front rally in Lille. "All the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority. We have reason to be disgusted."

Whether Ms. Le Pen is right on the halal issue or not – President Sarkozy says she’s wrong and that only 2.5 percent of the meat in Paris is either halal or kosher – her strong attacks against Sarkozy for being soft on France’s Muslim community are an indication of how concerned Le Pen thinks French people are about immigration.  And they are a window into a larger trend of unease in a recessionary Europe about how to deal with large Muslim minorities who initially came for temporary work, but ultimately stayed on, bringing their families and cultural practices with them.

A half-century ago, many European countries encouraged the immigration of laborers from the Middle East and South Asia. The loss of so many working-age men during World War II meant that Europeans had to turn elsewhere for the laborers to help man their factories and rebuild their economies. The assumption had always been that these laborers would return home; but like American soldiers after World War I, many Muslim laborers didn’t want to go back to the farm back home after they saw Paris.

Jonathan Laurence, a political scientist at Boston College and author of the book “The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims,” says that France is not alone in its concerns over its growing Muslim minorities.

“The big picture is that in the last 20 years how much things have changed, and how governments have realized that people are here to stay,” says Professor Laurence, in a recent conversation with Monitor editors. But now, as the European economy is shrinking or staying flat, European politicians have “realized there is election gold in undoing the little they got done” in changing their laws to accommodate Muslim minorities.

You can see it in France's 2011 ban on Muslim head scarves for women, in Switzerland’s 2009 ban on the construction of minarets at mosques, and in the bans of a northern Spanish region against the public calls to prayer at local mosques. All of these moves reflect growing concern among some Europeans that their culture is being eroded by recent immigration of people with different cultural practices and religious beliefs, says Laurence.

Such practices may be legally justifiable, Human Rights Watch says, but in practice they are discriminatory toward religious minorities.

Banning certain aspects of Islamic practice may be popular with voters within the majority community – and indeed, there is a similar anti-Islamic mood present in the US as well, with the controversy over an Islamic cultural center in New York City near the World Trade Center and with Oklahoma’s attempt to restrict the consideration of sharia law in US courts.

But rejection of another’s culture is counterproductive, says Laurence. If Europeans are worried about the influx of Islamic culture, the worst thing they can do is alienate Muslim migrants from the larger society. In certain cases, this could push disaffected young Muslims into the waiting arms of that small minority of preachers with radical agendas. A better method, Laurence says, would be to accept that Muslims are in Europe to stay, and then grant Islamic communities the same official status – and regulatory practices – that Christian and Jewish congregations currently enjoy.

“Allow Muslim prayer spaces to register officially, and you won’t have street prayers,” he says, referring to the practice of holding Friday afternoon prayers in public spaces such as sidewalks or public parks for lack of available prayer spaces. “Help provide theological training for local imams, and you won’t have to rely on foreign imams with radical agendas.”

Such accommodation may be difficult to muster in these times of political and economic uncertainty, so Laurence says the next best option would be “benign neglect.”

“We need benign neglect. If you keep polarizing positions, then the radicals of both sides will dig in their heels,” he says. “But if you want to resolve these issues, then you have to accommodate the minority community.”

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