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Talkers and Porkers – from multiculturalism to assimilation through the medium of pork

by | May 20, 2016

The Talmud tells a story of how Eleazar (2 Macc. 6) was tortured to death for refusing to swallow pork that was forced into his mouth by the Greek authorities. The forces of King Antiochus, determined to force the Jews to abandon their barbaric ancestral customs, were instructed to put to death every Jew who refused to assimilate to Greek culture.

In the perverse logic of antisemitism, however, this came to mean that Jews were porcine, an idea which became the basis for folklore, stereotypes and proverbs. It was held simultaneously that Jews, by refusing pork, were setting themselves apart from and above their neighbours, and that they secretly craved the meat which they forbade themselves — even to the point of carnal desire. In England, a Christian man would eat bacon “to shew himself to be no Jew” (John Aubrey), but a Jew supposedly might make a crazed lunge for pig meat if given the chance. To force Jews to eat pork, as happened for example by state decree under the reign of Nicolas I of Russia, was considered both a condign humiliation and a fitting means to cultural assimilation.

Today, multicultural logic supposedly prevails, and in the discourse of multiculturalism nothing bespeaks anti-racist civility and sophistication more than the respectful sampling of foods from ‘other cultures’. It is usually not difficult in metropolitan areas to find a Jewish deli, where hot beef sandwiches may be procured, but not pork – and this is welcomed as a sign of easygoing cultural pluralism. Yet, Charlie Hebdo’s recent editorial on the Daesh attack in Brussels and the supposed political correctness which enabled it, reminds us that this consensus is far from secure. Calling for a kind of laïcitarian crackdown on ostensible Muslim infringements on secular culture, the magazine spied a hidden danger in “the local baker” who “makes good croissants” but refuses to sell “ham or bacon” – which seems like “no big deal” in itself, until it discloses itself as part of a wider, incremental offensive which the magazine argues is slowly conspiring to enable terrorist assault.

The ethnocentrism of Charlie Hebdo’s cultural politics is barely closeted and not worthy of extended commentary. It is a matter of contingent historical fact that, at around 1,000 BC, the previously pork-eating populace of the Middle East began to shift overwhelmingly to the far more manageable, efficient consumption of chickens — thus providing the basis for a taboo that would take the form of religious edict. It is a matter of similar contingency that, whereas the Prophet Mohammed appropriated some of the food taboos of Mosaic Law, the majority of Christians have always interpreted the New Covenant to mean that they are no longer bound by these prohibitions. And it is a matter of chance that as meat-eating was ‘democratised’ in 19th Century Europe, wherein the poor shifted from a largely cereal-based diet to one that more resembled the meat-heavy meals of the aristocracy and urban elites, bacon was sufficiently inexpensive as to become a staple of the working class. Even as living standards expanded and meat production increased, pork and bacon products remained cheaper by far than alternative meats such as beef. When ‘secularism’ becomes a by-word for mortal terror at the thought of anyone doing anything slightly differently to how things have been done by white people in north-western Europe (and then only relatively recently), then it is a synonym for white chauvinism.

With the rise of this Islamophobia under the impress of ‘secularism’, however, porcine tropes have once more come to the fore. In 2015, a German police officer was investigated for assaulting two refugees. Having cuffed the feet of one refugee, from Afghanistan, he began to strangle him and stuffed his fingers up his nose before sending photographs to colleagues on Whatsapp, with the message: “It was funny … squealed like a pig … It was a present from Allah.” The other refugee, from Morocco, was forced to eat rotten pork mince from the floor. In the same year, a Danish school was fined for having compelled a devout Muslim student to eat pork. Later that year, a school in Auxerre, in central France, required all non-pork eating students to wear red discs — a stance that was controversial not only because of the obvious resonances with Third Reich practices, but also because many politicians, from Sarkozy to Le Pen, objected to offering non-pork dietary options in any case.

Islamophobic ideology both resents the Muslim aversion to pork — because it shows that ‘they think they’re better than us’ — and exults in the idea that Muslims are pork. Folklore abounds on the theme of excessive Muslim sensitivities to pork. Poorly designed memes scold ‘political correctness’, claiming (falsely, needless to say) that Oxford University has banned all books referencing pigs, pork, bacon or ham. Islamophobic jokes delight in the chance ways in which Islam and pigs can be brought into proximity – ‘putting the ham back in Mohammed’, and so on. Sooner or later, this segues into the idea that Muslims, like pigs, might be butchered.

It is telling just how much mystical faith is placed in swine power by the Islamophobes. In February, for example, Donald Trump regaled his supporters with a story (false, needless to say) of how an American commander put down a Muslim rebellion in Mindanao in the Philippines during the American colonial rule of the country. The punchline of the story was that the commander, before executing fifty of the rebels, had the bullets dipped in pig’s blood – and there was, Trump claimed, no violence for a quarter of a century afterwards. Trump’s supporters, if they wish to put this theory into practice, may now purchase “pork-laced ammunition” branded ‘Jihawg’, which promises to deter terrorists. What is telling about this is not just the magical power it invests in pork, which is supposedly Kryptonite to Islam, but what this implies about how Islamophobes see Muslims. It is as if Islam is a demonic superpower which possesses and moves Muslim bodies, and whose destructive potency could only conceivably be sapped by rituals of desecration.

Since racism pivots on the body, bodily nourishment and reproduction is a constant theme in racist discourse. The regulation of what goes in and comes out of the body is an essential marker of difference. How food and the regulation of diet is spoken of of tells us a lot about the nature of the racism in question. Those who govern their bodies inadequately are weak; those who govern them excessively are fanatics. Thus, if antisemitic and Islamophobic ideology treats both Jews and Muslims as excessively controlling in their diet, anti-black racism in the US has always treated the diet of African Americans as being excessively lax and slobbish. Stereotypes about fried chicken and watermelon, have at their root the claim that black people are weak and pathetic. Stereotypes about pork prohibitions have at their root the claim that Jews, and now Muslims, are sinister fanatics. Yet, a small irony in this is that the stereotype about African American diets now incorporates the presence of plenty of pork in soul food recipes. It seems that achieving the right intake of pork is a delicate racial matter, a Goldilocks conundrum that only white Europeans have excelled at.

As a frequent corollary, this fanaticism, this excessive self-control, is perceived to spill over into either covert or overt attempts to control everyone else. The moral panics about the spread of ‘halal’ meat, supposedly imposed on a unwary public by a complicit, politically correct elite, suggest that many people fear that Islam will pollute their very bodies. As if all of our hang-ups about food and what it might be doing inside us could be more readily coped with, if reduced to single cultural taboo. This is not to say that ‘political correctness’ has only one valence in this discussion. In Denmark, both halal and kosher methods of slaughter have been prohibited, ostensibly on animal rights grounds. In the UK, outrage over cruel practices at a Yorkshire halal abbatoir — wherein the sadistic nature of the cruelty was decidedly un-halal — led to calls for its banning. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to discern in this a similar type of displacement here. Notwithstanding the great achievements made in distancing abbatoirs from population centres, so that the slaughter of animals takes place far from the eyes of consumers, it is unlikely that any carnivore is unaware of the pain and death that necessarily seasons their diet. Acknowledging and energetically berating ‘excesses’, especially those introduced by outsiders, once again establishes a Goldilocks conundrum – what level of animal suffering is just right?

The more doctrinaire Islamophobes refer to the collusion of elites in polluting both body and culture with the Muslim virus as ‘Dhimmitude’, a term coined by the Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Bat Ye’or to describe an attitude of surrender and appeasement. In other words, just as Muslims face more and more restrictions across Europe — and nowhere more so than in ‘secular’ France — they are imagined to be increasingly dominant, ingeniously manipulative, and ever on the brink of wresting final power. Just like the ‘Jew’ of antisemitic ideology, the ‘Muslim’ of Islamophobic ideology is perceived as a rival to the white race for mastery. And pork is the evidence of this.

It is thus neither novel nor surprising that Charlie Hebdo could find, in the innocent actions of bakers who don’t sell pig products, the seed of terror and tyranny. Fanon taught us how to read this. Just as the white gaze finds in the racially coded bodies of black people the projected representation of white colonial violence and sexual aggression, so it finds in the bodily sustenance of Muslims its own clamorous reaction, terrified authoritarianism, and yearning for violent repression and mastery.