A puzzling phenomenon in contemporary Muslim culture is that of “porkophobia.” Porkophobia describes a syndrome that includes many symptoms such as severe disgust, waves of nausea with occasional vomiting or increased heart rates and sweating when Muslims encounter pork or pigs. Importantly, these reactions do not require the ingestion of pork, they are even observed when Muslims see pork or pigs. In more severe forms of porkophobia, the mere image of a pig on TV or the realization that one has touched (not snacked on!) pig skin leather elicits similar reactions of revulsion. This severe form of porkophobia is not restricted to Muslims growing up in pig-free Muslim countries, but is also found amongst Muslims living in countries where pork is commonly eaten and pigs are used as important farm animals.
I suffer from moderate to severe porkophobia, even though I sometimes have difficulties admitting how severe my ailment is. For example, I tried to laugh it off when some family friends gave us the movie “Babe: A pig in the city” as a present and inquired if it was a problem that the starring role was played by a pig. I have a hard time telling friends that according to the Chinese astrological calendar, I was born in the year of the pig even though the characteristics attributed to this astrological sign include fine qualities such as honesty, diligence and kindness. I also sympathized with a Muslim father who was being asked by his 3-year old daughter what the name of the small pink plastic animal was that she was holding in her hand. He first said this toy had no name, he then tried to kick it under his chair so she could not reach it, and because she persisted, he ended up saying it was a pink goat.
These reactions amongst Muslims to images of pork are not completely surprising. Muslims often point to the prohibition on eating pork found in the Quran and the Jewish kashrut laws. However, even though the Qur’an prohibits eating pork, it does not necessarily prohibit seeing talking pigs in a movie, owning pig-leather shoes or reading a Dr. Seuss book entitled “Green Eggs and Ham”. The porkophobic culture that is prevalent in many Muslim households has created an anti-pork and anti-pig culture that by far exceeds the actual religious prohibitions on ingesting pork.
It is remarkable how a whole culture of disgust evolved from a straightforward dietary law. When I have addressed this issue with fellow Muslims, they suggest that instilling porkophobia into the subconscious minds of Muslims prevents them from even considering the ingestion of pork. I have to agree that this strategy is very efficacious. I have virtually never seen anybody who refers to himself or herself as a Muslim ever eat pork. But what is most puzzling, however, is that this simple dietary law has lead to a whole culture of disgust, whereas other Islamic laws and Qur’anic prescriptions have not. One is much more likely to encounter a Muslim who drinks alcohol, commits adultery or collects interest on his loans than one who eats a bacon sandwich. While some argue that the prohibition of alcohol is more vague in Islam than the prohibition on pork, there is no doubt that Islam is very clear on prohibiting adultery and exploiting poverty-stricken people by charging interest on loans.
Why have other Islamic prescriptions and prohibitions not lead to a culture of disgust? Avoidance of pork has fairly minor sociopolitical relevance, it is not part of the five pillars of Muslim faith and it has never been a central message of Islam. In short, it is not a defining characteristic of Islam. The phenomenon of porkophobia has given a dietary law such a high level of importance that if a believing, kind-hearted generous Muslim were ever observed to be eating pork in public, he or she would be ostracized by the Muslim community. In contrast, contemporary Muslims have not developed a similar culture of revulsion when they see the un-Islamic practice of exploitation. Many Muslims would have no problems watching a movie with Michael Douglas acting as an aggressive CEO whose actions can have disastrous effects on the lives of his employees, while they might indeed have a problem if they saw Michael Douglas eating five strips of bacon in that same movie.
One answer to this puzzle is that porkophobia allows Muslims to maintain their identity especially when living as a minority in a predominantly non-Muslim culture with a straightforward criterion: Do you eat pork or not? The avoidance of pork is not that difficult. Even in Southern Germany, which is the heartland of pork sausages, one can easily avoid eating pork without disrupting one’s life or social relations. Therefore, the avoidance of pork does not have many untoward social or economic consequences for Muslims but it still allows them to feel a connection to their perceived religious identity.
On the other hand, “exploitophobia” would cause major problems for Muslims. Much of the modern economy is built on exploiting workers and charging excessive interest rates. If the thought of how Islam prohibits the charging of interest on loans or the exploitation of fellow humans were to lead to a culture of disgust, Muslims would have a hard time working in most parts of the modern economy. Thus, it is more convenient to allow the pork-prohibition to become a faux- principle of faith.
This elevation of comparatively less important aspects of Muslim faith to become the new core principles is not just limited to the avoidance of pork. It seems that the practice of Islam is often reduced to issues such as clothing, language or diet. These can be more conveniently implemented and monitored than the complex pursuits of knowledge, social justice or spiritual growth, which lie at the core of the faith.
Porkophobia therefore seems to have emerged as a convenient way for us to “feel Muslim,” by developing a whole culture around a dietary law. Muslims could perhaps consider whether one should use the power of revulsion to convey ideas that are more central to Islam rather than the mere avoidance of pork. Wouldn’t it be better if Muslims felt a porkophobia-like revulsion when encountering race and gender-based discrimination, domestic abuse, poverty or social injustice?
Jalees Rehman is a German Muslim scientist currently on faculty at the University Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Medicine working both as a stem cell biologist as well as a cardiologist. In addition to his work in the biomedical sciences, he has also studied the boundaries between religion and science and is currently trying to understand the clash between modernity and postmodernity.