To your averagely profane, carnivorous unbeliever, it is a thing of beauty. An object of unvarnished pleasure. A pretext, even, for a national day of celebration. Whereas to your averagely devout Muslim, carnivorous or otherwise, it is an abomination. A vomit-inducing object of disgust. I’m talking about the bacon sandwich.
Pig meat, in all its wonderful variations—pancetta, lardo, speck, coppa, and prosciutto to name just a few—is haram (forbidden) in Islam. The Quran (6:145) states: “[Prophet], say, ‘In all that has been revealed to me, I find nothing forbidden for people to eat, except for carrion, flowing blood, pig’s meat—it is loathsome—or a sinful offering over which any name other than God’s has been invoked.’”
In my research on Islamic apostasy, I found that pig meat has a special place in the hearts and minds of former Muslims. For many, the consumption of pig meat was a crucial point in their passage out of Islam.
Of course not all Muslims abide by this stricture, just as not all Muslims refrain from having sex outside of marriage or from drinking alcohol, both of which are prohibited in Islamic scripture. But few Muslims seem willing to admit to eating pig meat, especially in the company of other devout Muslims, and while pre- or extra-marital sex and alcohol for some Muslims may be a guilty pleasure, pig meat is liable to induce feelings of revulsion.
In ISIS’s food-themed propaganda, lovingly made and circulated by its Western cohort, you will see pictures of pizzas, kebabs, ice-cream, confectionary, and jars of Nutella. What you will not see are pictures of bacon sandwiches. Indeed, you may be more likely to see a proverbial pig flying than ISIS-curated pictures of bacon sandwiches. Because pig meat is like Kryptonite to your average jihadi.
But it isn’t Kryptonite to their arch nemesis. And I don’t mean Western "infidels," for whom pork, when it isn’t being weaponized by sundry oddballs and misfits, is a popular staple of the dinner table. I mean the “murtaddeen,” apostates—people who used to believe in Islam and identify as Muslims, but who no longer do.
In my research on Islamic apostasy, I found that pig meat has a special place in the hearts and minds of former Muslims. For many, the consumption of pig meat was a crucial point in their passage out of Islam. It signified the death of the old Muslim self and the re-birth of the new, non-believing self.
Just as having sex for the first time is an established ritual for entry into adulthood, eating pig meat is an important ritual that many ex-Muslims perform to mark their embrace of unbelief.
And it could be just as nerve-wracking. Many ex-Muslims told me that the very thought of eating bacon or pork made them want to vomit, but they felt compelled to do it to prove to themselves that Islam no longer had a hold on them.
Abdullah, for example, confessed that, the week after he’d apostatized, he tried bacon:
I felt a little guilty and it felt pretty weird. I think it’s just a sort of a mental block and it’s almost like feeding yourself poison because you’ve been taught that it’s dirty ... I was surprised at how normal it tasted. That was a big moment for me. It’s just sort of breaking free.
It was a big moment for Farhad too:
It was really difficult, because it’s so engrained into you that eating bacon is wrong. A lot of Muslims have sex, drink alcohol, and eat non-halal [non-permissible] meat, but the ultimate thing for them is the bacon, the pork. So for me it was symbolic. It was the last bit of Islam.
And so it was for Salim, who remembered, referring to the first time he tried pork:
It was a renunciation, I was like, I don’t believe in this stuff anymore. I’d already tried alcohol before, but I’d never eaten pork. It’s just a massive taboo. That sausage, it was the exit for me, there was no going back after that.
Every former Muslim, it seems, has a pig-themed gastronomic story to tell. In his memoir Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie recalls:
The last traces of belief were erased from his mind by his powerful dislike of the architecture of Rugby Chapel.... As a schoolboy he thought it hideous, deciding, in that science-fiction-heavy time of his life, that it resembled nothing so much as a brick rocket ship ready for take-off; and one day when he was staring at it through the window of a classroom in the New Big School during a Latin lesson, a question occurred. “What kind of God,” he wondered, “would live in a house as ugly as that?” An instant later the answer presented itself: obviously no self-respecting God would live there—in fact, obviously, there was no God, not even a God with bad taste in architecture. By the end of the Latin lesson he was a hardline atheist, and to prove it, he marched determinedly into the school tuck-shop during break and bought himself a ham sandwich. The flesh of the swine passed his lips for the first time that day, and the failure of the Almighty to strike him dead with a thunderbolt proved to him what he had long suspected: that there was nobody up there with thunderbolts to hurl.
Ex-Muslims, evidently, can’t keep off the subject. Just visit one of many online forums and you will find, in addition to a lot of serious theological discussion about Islamic scripture, extensive topic-threads entitled “So I Was Wondering.... What Does Bacon Taste Like?,” “The Day I First Tasted Bacon,” “Have You Tried Pork Yet?,” and “Do Ex-Muslims Eat Pork Eventually?” You will also find many pictures of haram delicacies, real food-porn that makes ISIS’s efforts on this front look positively tame. Nutella? Who needs Nutella when you’ve got bacon.
Simon Cottee conducted his research on ex-Muslims with the support of a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council.