(Mar. 10, 2014) A dispute over the authority to issue religious certificates has developed between the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI; note that the alternate spelling of Ulema is sometimes used; ulama is a term for Islamic religious leadership). (Markus Junianto Sihalolo, Indonesia Religious Affairs Minister Wants Right to Issue Halal Certification, THE JAKARTA GLOBE (Mar. 3, 2014).) MUI has faced accusations that it extorted bribes in connection with the certificates. (Council of Indonesian Ulama, RESOURCES (Georgetown University website) (last visited Mar. 3, 2014); Ulema Council Denies Certification Graft, THE JAKARTA GLOBE (Feb. 26, 2014).)
MUI, an umbrella organization founded by the government in 1975, is “intended to facilitate interactions between the secular Indonesian state and the majority Muslim community, encourage the involvement of religious authorities in national development, and enable interfaith cooperation. The group issues religious rulings on a variety of topics, ranging from public policies to popular culture.” (Council of Indonesian Ulama, supra.)
The certificates in question are for halal status, and their issuance produces income for the issuing body. In the past, MUI has issued the certificates and charged companies up to Rp5 million (about US$430) each to obtain them. The MUI would like to continue controlling the process, while the Ministry wants to take it over. (Sihalo, supra.)
Halal certificates can be issued to food and other businesses; halal status means that the animals involved were slaughtered, and resulting products manufactured, in accordance with Islamic law and therefore are lawful for Muslims to purchase and use. (Id.) The word “halal” comes from Arabic and means lawful or permitted. (What is Halal?, IFANCA website (last visited Mar. 3, 2014).) The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA) notes that while halal is a universal term that could apply “to all facets of life,” it is used in relation to “food products, meat products, cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, food ingredients and food contact materials.” (Id.)
Who Should Issue Halal Certificates?
The question of which body should have the right to issue halal certificates has been raised by the Minister of Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, in the context of the debate over draft legislation on halal products, a proposed law that has been stalled in the legislature. (Halal Product Security Bill [in Indonesian], House of Representatives website (last visited Mar. 3, 2014).) Ali has argued that the certificates should come from a government body and the income generated should go to the state, saying, “[t]he 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.” (Sihalol, supra.) Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama are Islamic social and religious organizations established in 1912 and 1916, respectively. (Muhammadiyah, ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA; Sejarah [History], Nadhlatul Ulama website (both last visited Mar. 3, 2014).)
In response, Ma’ruf Amin, MUI’s Deputy Chairman, argued that MUI should not be considered similar to other Islamic groups because it is “not a civil organization.” He described it as “a union of a sort, representing a number of civil organizations.” (Sihalol, supra.) Amin added that MUI has been in charge of the certifications for 25 years, that the income was not the main concern of the organization, and that “we only want to protect Muslims.” (Id.)
Should Certification Be Required?
In addition to the dispute over which body should control the certificates, the issue of whether or not it should be mandatory for companies to apply for them has been raised. At present, such application is voluntary. MUI has suggested that it should become a requirement. The Ministry of Religious Affairs does not support that idea, stating that because Indonesia is a country with six major religions, requiring halal certification is not appropriate. (Id.) Ali explained another aspect of the Ministry’s support for keeping certification voluntary, stating that small businesses that have not yet been certified as halal could have legal difficulties if such certification became mandatory, and problems for small businesses would hurt the economy. (Id.)