Australia: Bernardi inquiry scheduled on Muslim holy day

By Michael Safi -The Guardian

halal australiaNo halal certifiers will appear at Cory Bernardi’s upcoming public hearings into food labelling, which has been scheduled for one of Islam’s holiest days.

The South Australian Liberal senator instigated an inquiry in May to “get to the bottom” of the halal industry, which he has previously described as a “racket”.

More than 800 submissions were made to the inquiry, many of which were striking in their brevity, and echoed Bernardi’s concerns that certification was “forced on” retailers or funds terrorism.

Public hearings have been scheduled for Thursday, 24 September, which is also the date of Eid al-Adha, Islam’s annual “festival of sacrifice”.

Amer Ahmed, from Melbourne-based certifier the Ali-Iman Islamic Society, said the feast was “our biggest date in the Islamic calendar”.

“We’ve basically decided that we’re boycotting [the hearings] because it’s a racist inquiry, it has nothing to do with halal certification,” he said.

Guardian Australia understands that seven major certifiers were approached to testify on Thursday but all declined.

Another certifier, Mohamed El-Mouelhy, said the significance of the feast day was akin to that of Christmas for Christians.

“The economics reference committee is insensitive at best and disrespectful at worst for asking Muslims to attend the Senate inquiry on the most important day in the Islamic calendar,” he said.

Ahmed said Australia’s $13b halal industry did “need a clean-up”, but that the inquiry was not serious about addressing its issues.

“If the inquiry was done on a proper pretext, we would have been happy to cooperate. But accusing certifiers of funding terrorism, and garbage like that, the starting premise is just wrong,” he said.

Among those who will testify next Thursday are Kirralie Smith, an anti-halal campaigner, and Bernard Gaynor, a former army reserve major who was sacked from the defence force last year for “conduct that demonstrates repeated behaviour inconsistent with army and defence policies”. Gaynor has lodged an appeal with the federal court over the decision to terminate his commission and is awaiting judgment.

Jewish leaders testified at an earlier round of public hearings in August, where Peter Wertheim, from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said scrutiny of kosher certification in Europe had “often been used as a cloak for persecution and discrimination against the Jewish community”.

Bernardi suggested at the hearing that consumers had the right to be informed about how their meat was being slaughtered and whether “prayers [were] being said over it”.

“I can only imagine the outcry if it was a priest there with holy water,” he said.

In a submission to the inquiry, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimated the value of the global halal market would reach US$1.6 trillion by 2018. “The economic incentives for Australian businesses to seek halal certification for exports are therefore significant,” it wrote.

“Were we unable to offer Australian government-assured halal certification to our Muslim and other trading partners, access for our red meat exports to these markets would be limited and potentially denied, with a corresponding deleterious effect on the Australian red meat export industry.

“Likewise, if other food businesses did not have access to commercial halal certification services this would limit their ability to access a large and growing pool of Muslim consumers.”

A submission was also lodged by the Department of Industry, noting that halal certification was “not a tax”; was “unlikely to add significant costs to Australian food products”; complied with Australian animal welfare and criminal laws; and helped “Australian businesses access new growth opportunities”.

The Senate inquiry is due to report on 30 November.

Senator Bernardi has been contacted for comment.