07 September 2009

The Halal Products Bill -- Islamization by Stealth?

Whenever Indonesia debates a new law or an amendment bill that infringes upon civil rights or has been drafted to address a specific religious requirement, a parallel debate arises about whether or not the bill is an attempt at Islamization of Indonesia. Sometimes, the concerns raised are legitimate and sometimes they are not.

The morality based bills such as the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code which would ostensibly ban public displays of affection between men and women, including married couples, is one such example. Another example, was the passage of the Anti-Pornography bill, as the bill to all intents and purposes seemingly restricts the freedom of expression particularly in the arts. A further example is another bill currently before the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat / DPR) on film. This bill certainly ups the ante with respect to censorship and what is permitted to be made, let alone what might negotiate any censorship board.

However, it is the Bill on Halal Products that seems to have drawn the ire of many as a direct and not so stealthy attempt to impose Sharia law on all of Indonesia's citizens and not just the majority of the community that identifies as Muslim. Halal in a very general sense means that the product is one that is permitted for the purposes of consumption by Muslims.

This bill in essence sets out what must be done in order for a product to be classified as halal, and then once an application is made for certification as halal, and then how that product is to be packaged and labeled. The bill does not prevent the production, distribution, and sale of non-halal (or haram / prohibited) products. Once again, the bill sets out how a product comes to be classified and labeled as halal. Presumably any company seeking to have a leg of ham classified as halal is going to fail in their application. However, this does not mean that the leg of ham cannot be sold.

In many ways the halal symbol or label is no different from the "healthy heart" symbol that you can find on products that have successfully passed the certification process stipulated for the symbol to be applied. This is also similar for products that now carry symbols that say they are certified suitable for diabetics or people with high blood pressure or products that are certified dolphin safe.

The difference is that in most cases the symbols attached to products are certified by independent bodies and are not regulated in law beyond a very basic minimum. For example, in Australia there are laws that require that the claims of a product be substantiated. This would mean that if a producer offered a cure for cancer, then that claim would need to be substantiated. If it could not be substantiated then this would be a breach of the prevailing laws and regulations.

So, in that sense the bill is hardly Islamization by stealth. The adding of a halal seal to products will provide a guarantee to discerning Muslims that the product they are about to purchase meets some exacting standards with respect to a products halal-ness or lack thereof. Nevertheless, this might depend on how independent the certification process is and how independent those involved in the certification agency are.

Currently, it would seem that the Indonesian Ulama Council (Majelis Ulema Indonesia / MUI) will play a primary role as the peak Muslim body in Indonesia. Then again, how independent can the body be when its role is specifically to certify what is and what is not halal for a specific religion?

A far greater threat would be a local ordinance, such as the one recently pushed through in Bogor as it attempts to become a halal city, which prohibits the slaughtering of pigs within city limits. This would seemingly increase costs as any pork products would have to be brought in from other places and not sourced locally. An argument might conceivably be made that this ordinance is a breach of a constitutionally guaranteed right to not be subject to discrimination. Whether anyone picks up the baton on this one remains to be seen.

Going forward, it seems likely that this debate is going to arise ever more frequently.

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