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How Islamophobes Weaponize Pork

People have been using pork to try to intimidate or even (somehow) physically harm Muslims for centuries, and the rise of Islamophobic demagogues isn't helping.

Photo of a Qur'an covered in pork rinds sent to the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy CAIR

On Friday, one of America's most prominent Muslim advocacy groups called for state and federal probes of Gurley, Alabama, police chief Barry Pendergraft in response to two of his recent Facebook posts. In a video from September 23, Pendergraft showed himself handling bullets covered in bacon grease. A few days later, he added a photo of a box of what he claimed were thousands of pork-coated rounds. Although Pendergraft's posts did not mention why he was fooling around with bullets coated in pig fat, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) interpreted them as a sign of blatant Islamophobia on part of a law enforcement official.

To some, the council's reaction to the chief's posts might seem like a knee-jerk cry of prejudice. For his part, Pendergraft told the New York Daily News that he was baffled by the council's reaction, saying the video and photo had nothing to do with religion whatsoever, while declining to explain why he ordered the bullets. But interpreting these posts as potentially bigoted is hardly farfetched: Throughout history, people have deliberately used pig products to denigrate Islam and Muslims. In particular, over the past 15 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, swine-based hate crimes and intimidation have been a fixture in the West—so much so that we've seen the emergence of the (false) belief that pork is to Muslims as garlic or a crucifix is to vampires. And if the history of literally boarish Islamophobic incidents is any sign, we're poised to see more porcine hate—including the sale of pork-laced anti-Muslim bullets, which is somehow already an actual thing—in the near future.

Like strictly observant Jews, devout Muslims do not eat pork thanks to a direct scriptural prohibition. Majority groups or oppressors have long used impure foods to intimidate or disgrace the faithful of any out group faith—the Romans, for example, reportedly forced Christians to drink wine they'd offered as a tribute to the pagan god of the vine, Bacchus, making it impure in the eyes of early believers in Jesus. But pork has been an especially common tool of hate, used frequently against Jews, and sometimes as a handy double-whammy against Jews and Muslims in Europe.

"Following the Spanish Reconquista, when Muslims and Jews were forcibly converted or expelled, those that remained as new converts to Christianity were often required to consume pork as evidence of authenticity [and] sincerity to their new religion," explains Engy Abdelkader, a Georgetown professor and author of a May report on the rise of Islamophobic violence in 2016.

But while there have been sporadic pork-based hate crimes against Muslims for pretty much as long as Islam has existed, according to Abdelkader, rather few of these incidents popped up in America before September 11, 2001. Since then, it's been a steady stream of pork-infused hate.

"It correlates with the overall rise of Islamophobia," Ibramim Hooper, national communications director at CAIR, told me. "When Islamophobia goes up, incidents like this go up."

It shouldn't be surprising then that a spike in Islamophobic sentiment tied to the current presidential campaign in the US (and to the Brexit campaign and vote in the UK) have led to swells in pork-based attacks over the past year. In December, someone threw a pig's head at an Islamic center in Philadelphia, while another man wrapped the door handles of a Las Vegas mosque in bacon. In January, a man broke into a mosque in Titusville, Florida, smashing it up with a machete before leaving bacon on the entrance, while an Islamic center in Omaha had its door handles wrapped in bacon as well. CAIR also told me about an April incident in which someone put pork in a Muslim student group's room at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, a May case in which another person wrapped yet another mosque's door handles in bacon in Bossier City, Louisiana, and a June flap in which a man tried to enter a mosque in Raeford, North Carolina, with a bag of bacon.

(Similarly grotesque incidents have been reported in the United Kingdom in recent years, possibly encouraged by the Paris attacks last fall and more recent racial-religious tensions surrounding this year's Brexit vote.)

And these are just the cases that get media attention. Hooper says that almost every day, he or someone else at CAIR receives some sort of threat or insult incorporating pork. He remembers a Christmas card from a member of the American military that had been smeared with bacon grease on the inside. He added that the main CAIR office in Washington, DC, recently received a box containing a Qur'an covered in pork rinds, but didn't publicize this or many similar small-scale incidents of pork-based hate so as not to encourage increasing imitation.

"To Muslims, it's just annoying and clichéd," CAIR's director in Arizona, Imraan Siddiqi, said after the Las Vegas mosque porking in December, calling the tactic hackneyed.

But while these attacks seem designed to disrespect and offend Muslims, a few of the recent incidents suggest some in the West now view pork as not just a good insult, but an almost magical talisman that will somehow ward off scary Muslims who fear any contact with the stuff.

In 2011 and again in 2013, American companies sprung up selling pork-infused gun products. This May, al-Jazeera released video showing a Texas group preparing to fight a perceived Muslim insurgency, with many participants dipping their bullets in bacon grease or blood to send Muslims straight to hell when shot. There have been a number of similar incidents and inventions across the nation, but perhaps most boldly and directly, an anti-Muslim activist in Michigan told Samantha Bee in a segment on her show this June that "pig head to Muslims is like a crucifix to a vampire."

It should go without saying that this strain of pork-based Islamophobia, which supposes to use pork as a protective amulet as well as a tool of exclusion and denigration, makes no sense. While observant Muslims generally believe they are prohibited from eating pork, that isn't the same thing as coming into contact with it—and some believe they are even allowed to eat pork with no sin if it's unintentional or for survival, i.e. in cases of potential starvation or when forced to consume it. Even Muslims who do consider touching pork impure often believe you just have to wash the area to remove the impurity. And the very extremists these provocations are ostensibly supposed to deter sometimes argue their mission gives them carte blanche with impurities.

American belief in the magical protective powers of pork may stem from still-circulated (and apocryphal) tales about the American general Jack Pershing either shooting Muslim rebel prisoners with pork-blood bullets or burying them with pork skins—and therefore somehow pacifying a restive Philippine province with swine magic in the early 1900s. Even if they were used (as they may have been by individual soldiers), pig-based disincentives actually did nothing to halt Islamist violence in the region, which remained significant throughout America's presence there and even to this day. Still, numerous sources, including Donald Trump at a campaign rally in February, continue to tout some version of the Pershing story and the efficacy of pork-based deterrents.

According to Stephen Sheehi, a College of William and Mary professor and author of 2011's Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign against Muslims, this belief in the protective power of pork isn't just the latest fad in trying to use pigs to oppress a minority group. Instead, it's the form intimidation and desecration take when people grow so hostile to Muslims that they see them as subhuman monsters to fight off with charms.

"They're not even dehumanized like savages" at this point, says Sheehi. "They are equated with or understood at that level of un-humanness."

Unfortunately, CAIR's Hooper acknowledges, neither being informed of the fallacy of using pork as a cure all nor seeing directly that it doesn't work to either scare off Muslims-as-vampires or insult them into submission seems to do anything to dissuade people from using pork as tool of hate.

"Bigots aren't brain surgeons," he says. "Maybe they can't think of anything better."

And with Islamophobic demagogues all the rage in the West, this means we may see even more pork-based incidents of all stripes in the coming months in the US and abroad. Hooper concedes that at least getting a bacon-greased card now and then is better than the times people have sent him letters they claim they've smeared with their own shit. And it's certainly not as dangerous as all the direct physical assaults on and even outright murders of Muslims because they were Muslims that we've seen over the years. But it's still an absurd, archaic, and bizarre form of sometimes violent bigotry, the rise of which is disgraceful and unacceptable in an ostensibly modern, post-magic society.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.