Islamophobia — and the demand for halal food — are on the rise in the US

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The popularity of halal food is on the rise. So are instances of Islamophobia. It's a surprising revelation: As people attack mosques and engage in hate crimes against Muslims, a staggering number of people are clamoring for food cooked in accordance to Islamic law. 

According to an estimate from research firm Nielsen, the sales of halal food hit $1.9 billion between August 2015 and August 2016,  Bloomberg reported. Compared to 2012, that's a 15% increase in sales.

This rise isn't simply due to an increase of the Muslim population in the U.S. "Adventurous millennial foodies are embracing it too," Bloomberg noted. Halal sales are projected to hit $20 billion this year, the publication added, citing the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America.

While the demand for halal food is soaring, so too are instances of hate crimes toward Muslims. The latest report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, reveals that between 2013 and 2015, 120 mosques across the U.S. have been attacked. Seventy-eight of those mosques were attacked in 2015 alone. This happened the same year that the Halal Guys, a popular NYC-based halal street food concept, signed a deal to open 50 franchise restaurants in Southern California alone, QSR Magazine noted. The restaurant plans to open 300 locations across the U.S. in the next several years, too, Bloomberg noted. 

While the numbers for 2016 have yet to be fully reported, the year is set to be "the second-worse year on record when it comes to mosque attacks," CNN reported. There have been 55 mosque attacks so far this year, a report published by CAIR on Thursday revealed. Just this week, on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, was set on fire

Since this data only records violence relating to mosques, it doesn't take into account violent acts against Muslims like the beating of Mohamed Rasheed Khan in Queens, NY in June that left him in such bad shape that he was unable to eat or speak. Or the three young Muslim students who were gunned down in a home in North Carolina in 2015. Or the slew of Muslims that have been kicked off of planes, simply for being Muslim. Or the anti-Muslim rhetoric that plagues the campaign trail. 

A Halal Guys cart. Source: The Halal Guys/Facebook
A Halal Guys cart.  The Halal Guys/Facebook

So what does the rise in both the demand for a culture's food and instances of hate-fueled crimes against people of that culture mean?

Nathan Lean, the author of The Islamophobia Industry, said he isn't shocked by the simultaneous rise of the two, and considers them to be two disparate trends. "Conventional wisdom would suggest that the spike is surprising because halal food is a Muslim thing," he said in an email. "But I don't think that the people who are likely responsible for the popularity of halal products (outside of the Muslim community) are the type that would not eat something because of its association with a particular religion."

Lean said he also believes that the people that are flocking to halal food are not usually the people participating in acts of Islamophobia. "There are some people who will fear monger over [halal food's] simple presence in our society and declare it a sign of some larger Muslim conspiracy," Lean explained. "But, those voices are fairly peripheral and it's the more moderate, culturally aware, educated, and pluralist-minded folks that have garnered such enthusiasm for this food." 

He also cautions that while the popularity of halal food is growing, it is a "fairly localized phenomenon." Many food trends tend to take hold in big cities first, Lean said, and this is the case with halal food too; shwarma is practically ingrained into the fabric of New York City, but remains relatively unheard of in many rural towns. States that hold major cities like California, New York and Texas, also have the largest number of halal restaurants, according to Zabihah, a website that lists restaurants that serve halal food across the U.S.

While some halal meals and products can be found at grocers like Whole Foods and Kroger, halal still hasn't become completely mainstream yet. Two of the world's largest food manufacturers — Mondelez International and Nestle — only sell a handful of halal products in the U.S., Bloomberg noted. This is despite the fact that Nestle has the capacity to provide halal food to the U.S. After all, the company has 151 halal factories, but demand in the U.S. is not high enough, yet. 

A halal restaurant. Source: Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock
A halal restaurant.  Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock

"When, and if, major retailers and grocery chains begin to feature halal products more regularly, and in larger numbers, we'll likely see more pushback [from people who are Islamophobic]," Lean said. "For now, though, the [halal] trend seems fairly settled within communities that wouldn't ordinarily be expected to hold prejudices towards Muslims." 

And even then, Lean doesn't believe that their ideology is always able to transcend their tastebuds: "At the end of the day, lots of people are led by their stomachs: if it taste's good, why not eat it?" 

Of course, this isn't the first time there has been an acceptance of a culture's cuisine but not its people. If anything, it's prevalent in Mexican food. While people like Donald Trump and his supporters call for a wall to be built at the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent immigrants, U.S. residents can't stop eating burritos. Mexican food is one of the most popular cuisines in America, and more people buy tortillas than burger and hot dog buns, Bloomberg reported in 2013. 

Still, the growing popularity of halal food must be somewhat of a good sign for Islamic-American relations, right? 

After all, it helps foster understanding and awareness of a culture. Lean says yes and no. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he noted. "But I'm also a realist: I don't think delicious food is going to get us over the hurdle. It might get us closer to it." 

The real solution is in the acceptance of people and not just their recipes, Lean said. "I'll be pleased when it's not the food that people are interested in loving, but the Muslims who have prepared it."