Indonesia Religious Affairs Minister Wants Right to Issue Halal Certification

Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali. (JG Photo/Fajrin Raharjo)
Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali. (JG Photo/Fajrin Raharjo)

By Markus Junianto Sihalolo, Jakarta Globe, 3/3/14

Jakarta. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) are engaged in a tug-of-war over the right to issue Halal certificates and to reap the potential economic benefits of the Islamic certification process.

The MUI, the nation’s highest Islamic oversight body, has handled the issuance of Halal certificates for decades — charging companies as much as Rp 5 million ($430) for the seal. But in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which entity should lay claim to the revenue from such certifications has become a hotly debated issue. The MUI wants to continue issuing the certificates, but is facing strong headwinds from the central government.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has broached the subject during discussions on the long-deliberated Halal Product Security Bill. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali wants the ministry to handle the certification, arguing that keeping the right exclusively in the hands of the MUI could breed jealousy among other Islamic organizations. Recent allegations that MUI auditors extorted tens of thousands of dollars from Australian companies has compounded the issue.

“The government as the prosecutor of regulations should be the one doing the process,” Suryadharma said. “The MUI is merely a civil organization. If we let the MUI become the executor, there might be jealousy from other organizations like Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama.”

The central government should be the sole arbiter and reap the attendant benefits, the minister said.

“If it is managed by the government, [the funds] will become non-fiscal state income,” he said.

MUI deputy chairman Ma’ruf Amin said that the MUI was an umbrella group and therefore should not be compared on equal footing to other prominent Muslim organizations.

“The MUI is not a civil organization. It isn’t the same as NU, Muhammadiyah and other [Islamic groups],” he told the Jakarta Globe on Monday. “MUI is a union of a sort, representing a number of civil organizations.”

He questioned why the issue was coming up now, when the MUI had overseen the process for 25 years. He declined to say how much the organization earned from certification issuance, but emphasized that it was not a for-profit enterprise.

“The MUI isn’t targeting revenues, we only want to protect Muslims [from non-halal products],” he said.

He said that the MUI should handle assessment, the government should handle enforcement and that certification should be mandatory.

“What’s the use of [deliberating] the law if [halal certification] will remain voluntary?” he asked.

Animals must be slaughtered and products must be prepared according to the specific prescriptions of Islamic jurisprudence, as determined by clergy, if they are to be considered lawful for observant Muslims to consume.

Currently food and clothing companies that sell in Indonesia can apply for Halal certification. The decision whether or not to seek the certification is voluntary, but the MUI — with the backing of some Islamic political parties — is working to change that. The controversial move would effectively push products containing pork onto the black market as supermarket shelves become Halal-only affairs.

The ministry has argued against this change, explaining that the measure should remain voluntary in a country where six major religions are protected by the constitution.

“The MUI wants the label to be mandatory, while the government wants it to be voluntary,”  Suryadharma said. “Why? Because if a small business can’t have it yet, it could become legal trouble for them. Micro-businesses might have to stop their activities and the economy will suffer. We can’t let the regulation disturb the economy.”

The bill has been stalled for years in the House of Representatives, where several controversial clauses have been the focus of intense debate. It was almost passed in 2012, but renewed arguments pushed it onto the back burner as the ministry continued to seek to wrest control from the MUI.