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Finding religion in the Vegan Challenge

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When it came to going vegan this past week, all I can say is thank God I could cheat a little.

I have friends and colleagues who have little choice in the matter, either because of health reasons, or out of deeply held moral convictions. Cooking hats off to them!

Having just endured an endless week of scouring ingredient lists even more critically than normal, staring helplessly for longer periods at the fridge, and haranguing the children with added fervor to eat their leftovers so I didn’t have to, I now can truly appreciate how difficult it is to go vegan - especially in a non-vegan household.

But that’s not the half of it.

I also happen to be a person of faith who believes that it’s okay to eat animals and consume animal products. But this week, I was compelled to think deeply about whether the way we consume animals and their products jives with the duty to treat all living things with mercy and compassion that I believe is both implicitly and explicitly taught by all religious traditions.

“To eat, we must take from the bounty of the Earth’s plants and animals. Our Deen, or path, dictates we do so while mindful of the trust we have with God to maintain the balance and do justice in our dealings with animals, plants, and people,” writes American author and broadcaster Ibrahim Abdul-Matin in Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.

Sadly, while Abdul-Matin and others from within my faith community have eloquently called for a realignment of our moral principles with what we put in our mouths, it’s a message I so often neglect when texting the grocery list to my husband.

“We've conveniently arranged our affairs to avoid seeing the chickens behind our omelettes, the cows behind our quarter-pounders. Our wilful blindness is enabled by removing any trace of animal identity from the food and products they provide for us: instead of being cows, chickens and pigs, they are juicy steaks, crispy nuggets and sizzling bacon,” writes Toronto lawyer and academic Ziyaad Mia.

It isn’t that Mia’s plea that we think about animals as “complex sentient creatures” is falling on deaf ears; it is just that we are lulled into believing that everything is okay. Especially Muslims who need only to see a halal food label slapped on a half-kilo of ground beef to be convinced that they’re obeying Divine Law. How the animal was treated up until it was either hand or machine-slaughtered figures nowhere in the discussion. The one time I visited a halal slaughterhouse on assignment for a CBC Radio program, I did see a clear commitment on the part of the owners to do what they could to ensure that animals were treated humanely once they were brought into their care.  But what about the animals’ living conditions up until then? And what about companies that promise halal and are later convicted of animal cruelty? How do we, as a community, react? Do we demand to know how things will improve? Do we stop purchasing products which were once living, feeling, creatures if they were likely harmed on their way to our kitchen tables?

Considering the wide availability of documentary films and investigative programs, research, and books examining the horrific reality of the modern food industry, we really have no excuse ignoring this critical aspect of our lives. We also have ample evidence of the health risks associated with the over-consumption of animal protein.

Over the course of the week, I did discover a dedicated community of believers and non-believers who are willing to reclaim agency in how they fuel their bodies and feed their souls. Once friends and acquaintances knew I had joined the challenge, they added me to relevant Facebook groups, sent me encouraging comments, and offered moral support (some extra cash would have been helpful, too, considering how expensive it is to go vegan, at least for the amateur!).

Yet I also got a lot of questions and head-scratching as to why I even bothered.

It isn’t just about health, or the environment. At the heart of it, this is about how we care for other living beings.

Besides, we all know that cheaters never win.




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