Halal and harmony

Thursday, 7 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The controversy created over the Halal certification process is disturbing as it seeks to divide the country along racial lines, laying the foundation for more conflict. There are several elements of it that, despite being repeated, are not being taken into account and undermine the tolerance and racial harmony that should be promoted in Sri Lanka, especially in the tenuous aftermath of a three-decade war.

Most people are aware that consumption of Halal is integral to the belief of Muslims. When the vast gamut of products available for sale in the country is considered, Halal certification remains limited to relatively few and the fear of Halal being extended for each and every product is not only unfounded but also impractical and irrelevant.

The heart of the maelstrom appears to be symbolism. Halal is a symbol of the Muslim population globally and therefore has been picked as the mascot, as it were, for the divisive campaign launched by various groups. Initially the battle was launched on the grounds that the Halal process was expensive and is a burden to the business community. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) came out with the breakdown of the cost for the certification process which clearly showed it was minor and income went in to meeting administrative expenses.

It is a point of note that none of the 150-odd companies that have obtained the certification came forward to support the platform forged by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which insists Halal certification was unfair, a cost to the consumer and against the business interests of companies. This is despite the fact that only a limited number of products which currently carry Halal certification,  they are mostly aimed at Muslim consumers, and the relatively low low service fee charged.

In fact the Halal process gave the stamp of approval necessary for Sri Lankan goods to be exports to Muslim markets such as the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia earning the country much-needed foreign exchange. The BBS responded by conceding that this could be allowed but insist that local Muslims should be satisfied with reading ingredients on the packaging.

So far the Government has refused to absorb the Halal certificate under its standardisation framework despite the ACJU clearly stating that it was open to such a move in response to allegation that the religious body has no right to issue certification. The Government appears to be indecisive fearing that entrusting Halal certification to Sri Lanka Standards Institution would in effect means officially recognising the Islamic practice.

Interestingly, only two other countries in the world – Thailand and Singapore – have Government-controlled Halal certification process but it is done with consultation from Muslim religious leaders. Why Sri Lanka alone, where 70% of the population follows the most tolerant religion on earth, needs such stringent process is indeed an oddity.   

A way out of the impasse could be ACJU to continue the certification process with companies being told that having the Halal logo in Arabic on packaging is not a requirement. Some countries follow this option. However, carrying Halal logo can be permitted on relevant products for exports to Muslim markets overseas. A dialogue between various stakeholders with trust and understanding can bring about a peaceful solution.

Even more dishearteningly there are signs that some extremist elements will not stop at the completely voluntary and benign Halal process but expand into criticising and demanding bans on goods produced by Muslim-owned but essentially Sri Lankan companies whose employees are multi-ethnic.

Perhaps the most insidious and diabolical of these are the massive campaigns being carried out via social media networks. These include a call for women to stop using a brand of sanitary napkins, marketed by a listed blue chip with Muslim shareholders, on the completely unsubstantiated grounds that it will cause sterility – all this as part of a larger “campaign” to “prevent a Muslim from becoming the President by 2050,” allegedly referring to a statement once made by the late SLMC Leader A.H.M. Ashroff.

The Government must be commended for giving a fair hearing for issues raised by both the BBS and Muslim community. However, the failure to put an end to current tensions in a direct and decisive manner has exacerbated worries and exposed the much-needed credibility on protecting minority rights. Except for an armed rebellion by a group, Sri Lanka has by and large enjoyed unity in diversity. This must be preserved with a greater degree of value, respect, empathy and responsibility lest the nation destroy the hard-won peace and social ties preserved over generations.