ACL Ameer Ali, courtesy of the Sri Lanka Guardian
The Arabic word halal simply means permissible and is the direct opposite of haram meaning prohibited. In between these two extremes there are several shades of permissibility and prohibition, and in none of which, including the two extremities, there is unanimity of opinion among Muslim religious scholars. This categorization in cover not only the narrow field of food and drinks but also the vast terrain of personal and societal behaviour and actions, such as economic transactions, social interaction, national governance, and so on. There are a number of contradictory and conflicting fatwas or religious rulings in relation to each of them. However, the bottom line is that they are all meant for Muslims and to Muslims only. Even in Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia non-Muslims are not compelled to consume halal food. For example, the Chinese in these countries are allowed to produce, consume, and trade in pork and pork related products even though such products are declared haram in Islam and even though some extremist Muslim groups would prefer them to be prohibited in the name of shariah laws. Hence, in Sri Lanka or anywhere else if any one forces a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Christian to eat halal food that action itself will tantamount to haram.
Apart from religion it is the economics of halal that is important in the global context. Even in the narrow field of food and drinks the halal-stamped products are a multi-billion dollar business in today’s global market. According to one estimate the total value of global the halal food industry amounted to $1.2 trillion. Let us look at some hard facts about the size of this market. To start with, the financially affluent Middle East, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has a population of roughly 38 million. There are another 30 million or so Muslims living in the West the vast majority of whom are halal food consumers. The emerging economies of Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia account for a further 335 million. In South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a total of roughly 350 million Muslims. Thus, the total Muslim population of just these countries alone amounts to 753 million. Assuming a conservative ten percent of this huge market consumes imported halal-stamped food and drinks the size of that ten percent is more than three times the entire domestic market of Sri Lanka.
Given the size of the halal food market the controversy over this issue that is currently creating mayhem in Sri Lanka – a Buddhist country historically known for its pluralism and religious tolerance – appears bizarre and ridiculous to say the least. Behind the newspaper headlines and the political rhetoric the underlying issue involving all the protests and counter protests seems to be not the principles of halal and haram but the money that is accruing to their advocates. The Sri Lanka Jamiyathul Ulema (SLJU), a self-appointed halal certifying agency, and the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), a far right Buddhist-nationalist organization with its foster parent Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are at the centre of this running controversy, while a popularly elected government with an absolute majority in the national legislature and a President with immense power in his hands are sitting on the fence.
The JU, an unelected body of the Sri Lankan Muslims appears to have arrogated to itself the power of deciding what is halal and haram. Neither the credentials of its members nor their knowledge about Islamic jurisprudence are under any doubt here, but as a collective body who gave them this authority to certify halal products? What is SLJU’s organizational structure? Does it employ qualified food technologists who could study the various ingredients of each processed item of food and drink and certify whether they fall within the religiously permissible? Does SLJU have its own abattoirs or supervise abattoirs owned by Muslims to see whether healthy animals are slaughtered humanely and hygienically, an essential requirement of halal meat? Does it supervise Muslim owned restaurants to see what ingredients that goes into food preparation and how clean these restaurants are? On what basis does this body charge the fees for its certificates? Does it pay tax on its revenue to the state? Or is it exempted by the government from that obligation? What does it do with the revenue it collects? Is this body accountable to any one? Are its accounts audited? These are questions that SLJU has to answer and make its financial activities transparent. The Muslim community, let alone the nation, has a right to raise these questions and it deserves an answer from SLJU.
On the other hand, BBS and JHU must understand that by demanding that the state should impose a blanket ban on halal certification it is acting against the national interest. Does BBS and JHU know that food processing Sri Lankan companies are competing in the global market? Halal-stamped food items have a niche market in rich countries and in countries with an affluent Muslim middle class. As a Sri Lankan born Australian citizen living in Australia for more than three decades I am able to see with great delight the rising popularity of Sri Lankan food items in the local grocery and super markets. Sri Lankan brand biscuits, cordials, and ready-to-eat processed food items are entering into Muslim households irrespective of the nationality of Muslim consumers. I am confident that this should be the case in countries like UK, Canada, New Zealand and in Europe. In the West alone there are about 30 million potential customers to be won for Sri Lankan halal-stamped products. Why should BBS and JHU by its narrow mindedness deprive Sri Lankan companies run by Sinhalese entrepreneurs of competing in this flourishing market? Shouldn’t Sri Lanka’s export products and markets be diversified? The anti-halal agitation does not make economic sense.
The question is who should certify the halal products? The obvious answer is the Sri Lankan Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Through its Muslim Secretariat it should be able to employ suitably qualified individuals with expert knowledge in both Islamic jurisprudence as well as food technology to supervise abattoirs, food manufacturing establishments and restaurants to certify halal processing and halal products. The fees charged for this service must go to remunerate the Ministry’s employees and any surplus revenue must go to the treasury. The Sri Lankan government has a legitimate case to operate this service on behalf of the Muslims because it is the government that funds Muslim education, and Muslim cultural activities like Islamic broadcasting and telecasting services, and the operation of the Wakf Board. The halal seal from a state agency employing Muslim experts will certainly get the approval of Muslim governments and international traders. By engaging in halal supervision the Sri Lankan government will not only assure the local Muslim community that it is consuming genuine halal products but also will open opportunities to Sri Lankan entrepreneurs of all ethnic groups to gain a foothold in the trillion dollar global Muslim food market.