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In Malaysia, halalness is more about control than faith

Published as “When it is more about control than faith” in Malay Mail Online

If by now you have not realised how Islamic laws impact the lives of non-Muslims as well, you are blissfully ignorant, purposely keeping blind, or part of the Islamist lobby trying to sell the myth to the former two categories.

One area that inadvertently impacts non-Muslims is the halal certification that food and beverages companies, and restaurants must go through if they wish to sell to Malay-Muslims.

Federal Islamic authority Jakim’s halal hub division was on everybody’s lips the last few weeks, after it was revealed by a local executive of US-based franchise Auntie Anne’s, that the halal certification for its central kitchen hit a snag.

The problem? Purportedly because one of the items on their menu was called “pretzel dog.”

For many of us, the name pretzel dog is obvious: “I have a pretzel, I have a hot dog… uh, pretzel dog!”

Not to literal Jakim.

Jakim’s halal division director Dr Sirajuddin Suhaimee has since blamed the media for the furore, despite his own words, “In Islam, dogs are considered unclean and the name cannot be related to halal certification.”

Meanwhile, Minister in charge of Religious Affairs Jamil Khir Baharom was so busy trying to put out the “fires” started by Jakim that he just straight up lied to the media in order for the controversy to die down.

“What matters for us is the ingredients, not the name,” Jamil told a press conference at Parliament on October 20.

“We do not intend to change the status of any food that is established and popular, like hotdogs,” he added.

What Jamil did not realise was that on the very same day he said that, Jakim’s halal division contradicted him by adamantly stating on its Facebook page that the Malaysian Halal Certification Procedure manual explicitly rejects food that uses name synonymous to non-halal products, such as ham, bak kut teh, bacon, beer, rum, and so on.

And presumably, dogs.

It is not as if this has never happened before. One just needs to take a look at another US-based fast food chain: A&W. The franchise was brought here from the USA in 1963. In 2001, the chain was bought over by local investors KUB Malaysia Bhd.

If you have not been there for some time and were wondering if they still serve the nostalgic coney dogs and root beer: no, they do not anymore. Now there are only “chicken and beef coney”, and merely “RB” on the menu.

Even A&W root beer sold in bottles in supermarkets are now called “sarsaparilla.”

Jamil’s deputy Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki has also pointed out that “good” food name is part of the requirement, saying that otherwise it would cause confusion (yes, that word again) and bring unpleasant connotations among Muslims.

“This takes into account the complaints of many including consumer associations because there are many food products confusing Muslims such as ‘non-alcoholic beer’, ‘no pork’,” Asyraf wrote on the same days as Jamil’s answer.

Or as Sirajuddin has told wire agency AFP, this move on hot dogs followed complaints by Muslim tourists from overseas.

I think we know who these tourists are. And English is not their first language. It is understandable that they might not understand straight away.

What is disheartening is that Jakim worries more about appeasing these tourists than respecting the intelligence of its own fellow citizens who understand that “non-alcoholic” and “no pork” mean exactly that: there is no alcohol in that drink, and there is no pork in that dish. No more, and no less.

Supporters of Jakim argue that the certification is voluntary. But it is only voluntary in the same way that getting a degree is voluntary in the job market — it is suicidal if you do not have one.

The certification was meant only as a guide for Muslims to make an informed decision. The lack of halal certificate in no way means something is not halal. When was the last time your nasi lemak vendor has a halal certificate?

Instead, it has turned into a necessity in order for a business to thrive, thanks to Jakim. For without a halal certificate, unscrupulous social media users would carry on smear campaigns as if the businesses themselves are just plain haram, forbidden.

What more, now Ikiam and Risda plan to develop a second logo to denote products made by Muslims. Essentially, what this does is close the market off to non-Muslim producers, no matter how halal their products is, and no matter if they have obtained Jakim’s halal certification.

In the end, the certification is nothing but a way for Islamic authorities to assert their control over an industry where they have a foothold. It gives a semblance of Islamic rule in certain areas, as an antidote to the free market that cares little about your religion.

Jakim supporter group on Facebook, Friends of Jakim, perhaps gave the best revelation into the mindset of Islamists who take halal certification as a way to assert the Muslim way on an unsuspecting population.

“In a world where most of the things are being dictated by non-Muslims, pioneered by non-Muslims, in a situation where Muslims are weak, thank God the halal market is among the bargaining chips that Muslims still have,” the group said on its page about the hot dog furore.

It does not take much to see how true this is.

Just last week, Selangor and Negri Sembilan Islamic authorities took it upon themselves to investigate pork burger chain Ninja Joe and confiscate several things because of the latter’s P. Ramly burger, a homage to the local Ramly burger. (A cheeky pun to be honest, but perhaps too clever for this country.)

You read that right, Islamic enforcers of Shariah laws that should have just applied to Muslims, raided a company owned by non-Muslims, that made it obvious they sell pork burgers.

What was their pretext? Yes, halal again.

Citing the Trade Descriptions (Certification and Marking of Halal) Order 2011, Selangor’s Jais said Islamic enforcers are authorised to inspect non-Muslim outlets that misrepresent that a food or product shall be deemed halal or usable or consumable by followers of Islam.

Negri Sembilan’s JHEAINS insisted that the enforcers are authorised by the Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism Ministry to act on their own when it comes to this matter.

In short, Ninja Joe was probed because their P. Ramly burger allegedly misled or confused Muslims into thinking that it is halal. It looks like even explicitly stating “pork burger” is no longer enough to prevent Muslim confusion.

If by now, you too have become confused, then they have truly won. But if now you are craving for that hot dog or pork burger, then I guess part of my job here is done.

Published inMMO column
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