A British high school student didn’t get a pass — literally — after writing that halal meat was ‘disgusting’ on a college admissions test. Was she an Islamophobe? No, just a diehard vegan.
It made the papers, as they used to say in the movies, when a vegetarian student in the UK was disqualified because she criticized halal meat on a Religious Studies exam.
According to a story in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, Abigail Ward was told by officials administering the exam she was guilty of making “obscene racial comments” after she wrote that she found the idea of halal meat “absolutely disgusting.”
In an article headlined “Race Row,” it was explained that the 16-year-old girl attended school at the Gildredge House in Eastbourne, a town of about 100,000 along the English Channel 75 miles south of London. She wrote the offending comments during a mandatory GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam in June.
In the UK, colleges prefer secondary school students to earn at least five GCSE certificates. Most college admissions in the UK mandate at least a minimum passing grade on GCSEs in English and Math, so these tests are serious business for British high school students.
According to the newspaper, Ward was told by exam board that she was disqualified “due to obscene racial comments being made throughout an exam paper,” thus committing what was described a “malpractice offense,” The Telegraph reported.
But her disqualification was overturned when the board was informed the student’s distaste for halal meat arose from the fact she is a strict vegetarian. However, Gildredge School officials appealed the decision on the grounds that the student had not made an Islamophobic comment about Muslims but was merely “expressing her distaste for halal butchers.”
The exam board upheld the appeal and apologized for the “upset and stress” they caused and accepted their original interpretation had been inaccurate.
A disturbing element of fear
On one hand, this tale could be characterized as a minor mistake by well-meaning exam administrators.
As the officials who conduct the GCSE exams told The Telegraph in a statement, “[We] take all incidences of suspected offensive material against a religious group in exams very seriously and must apply rules which are set out for all exam boards in such cases.”
Fine, but there are two disturbing elements to this story.
One is that overdosing on political correctness is almost always a bad idea, especially in an academic setting where (supposedly) exposure to a spectrum of ideas, often controversial, has traditionally been considered essential to becoming an educated adult.
That includes even the most radical conceptualization of veganism, the kind that its practitioners insist should be embraced by —imposed on, if necessary — all of humanity.
For our own good, of course.
More disturbing, though is the dark current of Muslim fear and loathing that runs like an underground sewer through this story.
The officials who initially disqualified Ward assumed that her disgust arose from her hatred of Muslims, or at the very least, her fear of the so-called “Islamization” of England.
That says more about their own biases than it does about what the young student believed.
Abigail Ward’s mother, Layla Ward, a 36-year-old nurse, told the newspaper that the initial disqualification was due to an “over-zealous, over-righteous examiner.”
Yet at the same time, there is no reason, dietary or religious, to characterize halal meat as “absolutely disgusting.”
Don’t approve of it, don’t buy it, don’t eat it, if that violates your principles.
But at the end of the day, whether over there or here at home, we all need to dial it down when it comes to expressing our beliefs, no matter how strongly held. The alternative to vitriol is called tolerance, and even its occasional deployment goes a long way toward avoiding incidents like the one that impacted this young student.
Not to mention our own often poisonous political “dialogue.”
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.