Singaporeâ€™s Pasar brand pork, marked â€œhalal.â€ NTUC, which owns Pasar, claimed the halal sticker was forged and promised retaliation.
What could consumers say when they found pork in a product guaranteed as halal by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) as happened recently?
The council executives were very quick to declare themselves innocent in the fatal incident and blame others.
As the countryâ€™s highest Islamic vanguard, the MUI is very active in issuing edicts (fatwa) including controversial ones.
â€œWe are only in charge of the certification. The control function is in the hands of government agencies like the Food and Drugs Control Agency (BPOM), the trade ministry or the health ministry,â€ said MUI chairman Amidhan recently.
The council leaders need to honestly acknowledge that they may have gone too far in requiring food and beverage companies to get halal stamps from the MUI because it does not have enough personnel, networks or the technology, and let authoritative government agencies handle halal requirements.
Let the council concentrate on much more fundamental issues. But because the halal stamp also involves money, the temptation to retain power may be just too strong to resist.
Realizing that sticking on halal labels issued by the MUI can jack up the sales turnover of products, many fast-food restaurants display such labels at their entrances or front windows.
Some food and beverage producers also unhesitatingly put the same labels on their goods to attract consumers, particularly Muslims.
Do they have a real concern about halal products or merely care about commercial considerations? Are Muslims actually protected by the halal labeling?
This is a very serious and complicated problem to resolve as Indonesia is facing various constraints that hamper consumer protection, such as weak supervision, meager legal certainty and powerful business interests.
The halal labels, made by the Assessment Institute for Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics (LP POM MUI) for the purpose of providing certainty about the permissibility of some products to ease the minds of consumers, have turned into business commodities.
Some producers are concerned about the permissibility of their products for consumption. But most others consider it a business opportunity that canâ€™t be missed and frequently they prioritize business interests over consumer benefits.
Consequently, a lot of consumers are disadvantaged and halal labels are no longer a guarantee to obtain products permitted by their religion.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, pork can be freely sold after halal labeling. As reported by the media, the Food and Drug Control Agency (BPOM) recently found five pork products in abon (shredded and fried meat) and dendeng (jerked and dried meat) forms sold in several traditional markets in the city with beef preparation labeling and halal certification. Several days later, similar products turned up in other parts of Indonesia.
The case of the discovery of pork-based abon and dendeng reflects the very poor system of registration and control of food products, which involve the MUI, the BPOM as well as the central government and regional administrations.
On the other hand, it would be unwise to put the blame only on the MUI, because Indonesia has various weaknesses in its food and beverage control.
Based on professional considerations, the time is opportune for the MUI to give up the function of halal certification and focus more on its main role of fostering the Muslim community. Various ways are still at the disposal of the MUI to protect its community by ensuring the halal condition of food products.
In connection with the halal and haram (forbidden by Islamic law) edicts issued by the MUI, the MUIâ€™s role is, of course, still needed by Muslims. The problem is that there is a strong impression in society today that the MUI is too generous with less essential rulings. The edicts announced are frequently seen as being devoid of thorough evaluation and lacking in harmony with universal values as taught by Islam.
This may be one of the factors why the MUIâ€™s edicts have often triggered public controversy and confusion, as was the case with the haram rulings on yoga and smoking, which in practice are mostly ignored by the Muslim community.
However, it is an example of how a fatwa or edict requires profound study based on the principle of prudence, with due consideration to the degree of its implementation in society.
The question is: What is the purpose of issuing a fatwa if, finally, the edict causes confusion among Muslims, as it fails to serve as a guide and draws less response?
Doesnâ€™t this situation only make Muslims victims, especially those in dire need of good examples from their clerics?
The writer is member of The Jakarta Postâ€™s Opinion Desk