Sunday, November 15, 2015

Behind the obsession with ‘halal trolleys'

Wong Chin Huat 

COMMENT I can understand if Muslims worry about accidentally consuming or even touching pork.
Dietary restrictions are not a prerogative of the faithful, let alone Muslims. A housemate of mine in the UK, a Palestinian by birth, was an atheist and staunch vegan. He would check the ingredient label of every product he consumes and refused to drink certain types of beer because animal products are used in the processing.
To the policy of having separate ‘halal’ and ‘non-halal trolleys’ - already implemented by NSK hypermarket; studied by the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry to make it a legal requirement; and cheered on by the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) and the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM), my first response is to ascertain the likelihood of porcine contamination through the use of supermarket trolleys.
I believe this would be useful for Muslims to judge if such measures are necessary. After all, most Muslims wouldn’t have the experience of visiting the non-halal section in a supermarket.
I went to a multinational hypermarket in Kuala Lumpur to buy pork ribs, deliberately using an ‘unfortunate’ trolley.
Below is my journey - or the poor trolley’s encounter with pork - in pictures.
Picture 1: This is the ‘unfortunate’ trolley picked by me.
Picture 2: Here is the non-halal section. As you can see, even the air is segregated, until the automatic door opens.
Picture 3: I picked up a pack of pork ribs. As you can see, it was neatly wrapped in plastic and the surfac e was dry. If you insist that the plastic surface may have tiny bits of pork - which may be discovered if you use a microscope - then my hand would now be deemed contaminated.
Picture 4: The cashier in the non-halal section - always a non-Muslim - placed the pack of pork ribs into a plastic bag. If you insist that the plastic surface may have some tiny bits of pork, then the cashier’s hands would now be deemed contaminated.
Picture 5: I paid with cash. Here, the risk of porcine contamination would be very high as the notes and coins are passed so frequently and they could have just come from a char siew (BBQ pork) vendor in previous transactions.
Picture 6: I put the pack of pork ribs - now wrapped in a plastic bag - back in the trolley.
Picture 7: I put some vegetables into the trolley.
Picture 8: At the general counter, I paid for the vegetables while the pork ribs remain in the trolley. This cashier won’t have the chance to even touch the plastic bag.
Picture 9: I removed both the pork ribs and the vegetables from the trolley. The ‘unfortunate’ trolley joined its peers, waiting for the next customer.
What is the risk of the next customer - who might be a Muslim, a staunch Hindu/Buddhist/vegetarian/vegan - finding their hands or food contaminated by the pork ribs I bought?
Completely negligible.
The real risk of porcine contamination lies actually in the use of bank notes and coins, which change hands countless times in a day.
Unnecessary solution
If one really wants to eliminate the minute risk of porcine contamination to Muslim customers, then one should push for cashless transaction - at least for the non-Muslims - not the unnecessary and ineffective move of having separate trolleys.
Now, if ordinary Muslims who would never set foot into the non-halal sections have such unfounded worry, it is understandable.
But how could hypermarket management, ministry officials, and consumer activists be so ignorant? If they are not ignorant, why do they still press for such an unnecessary and ineffective move?
Is this Islam?
“If the (packaged) pork is put into the trolley and after that, Muslims use (the trolley), the trolley doesn’t have to be washed as the pork is in its packaging,” independent preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin told the Malay Mail Online.
Citing Aisha, wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him), who said, given a choice, he would opt for 'the less burdensome, provided it was permissible', in Bukhari and Muslim hadith collection, Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF) calls for 'more in-depth study, dialogue and communication between all stakeholders (not just [the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry], Fomca, or [PPIM]), all religious communities and religious experts before we even think about a new law”.
Applying the principle of ‘maqasid syariah’ - the higher objectives of Islamic jurisprudence, MPF urges Muslims not to 'be easily distracted by petty and shallow issues like ‘halal trolleys’ but instead focus our attention and energies on ‘fiqh awlawiyat’ (jurisprudence of priorities), to uplift this country from the abyss of religious and racial strife, economic meltdown and a failed nation-state'.
The source of halal-haram obsession
If not Islam, what is the basis of this ‘haramphobia’? Why is this obsession with the halal-haram dichotomy that goes way beyond religious duty?
Renowned expert on Islam in Southeast Asia, Dr Syed Farid al-Attas, offers a very plausible explanation.
The associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore told the Malay Mail Online that for some Malays who experience social and political security, there is 'a need to live in a way that exaggerates the Islamic identity' so that they 'can feel that not all is being lost'.
Put in another way, this is Muslim nationalism at work in response to the Malay anxiety.
By segregating trolleys - even when contamination is virtually impossible - the message being planted in the minds of Muslims by some politicians, bureaucrats, activists, and businesses, is that non-Muslims are unclean because of their dietary habit.
The zeal of ‘haramphobia’ is not only diverting our attention from the pressing political and economic issues but also more fundamentally, it is undermining our nation-state formed in 1963.
Many Muslim nationalists reject the post-colonial nation-state as an illegitimate product of colonial rule.
The staunchest ones - like militant Islamic State and the non-militant Hizbut Tahrir - would aim for the restoration of the caliphate system to rule upon all Muslims.
Others would aim to transform the nation-states into theocracies or if that is not possible, create a Muslim core-nation within a plural nation-state.
Powerful tool for segregation
In Malaysia, the existence of non-Malays and plural society is blamed on the British for first bringing in the Chinese and Indian immigrants and then not forcing them to assimilate.
Such simplistic and distorted anti-colonial discourse ignores two facts.
Firstly, Sabah and Sarawak were never Malay or Muslim states, as even the Brunei and Sulu sultanates exercised their power in limited coastal areas.
Secondly, at least for Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and most notably Johor, the Chinese were brought in not by the British but by Malay rulers and aristocrats before the British’s late entry around 1873-4 and in 1915.
Because plural society is illegitimate in such nationalist discourse which is indoctrinated through various channels - from schools and media to Biro Tatanegara, the non-Malay/non-Muslim minorities are to be despised but tolerated rather than celebrated and embraced.
‘Haramphobia’, in that sense, is a powerful tool to segregate Muslims from non-Muslims and reinforces the Malay anxiety.
Syed Farid is not exaggerating the danger when he warns that we are sliding down the slope to religious apartheid on the ‘halal trolley’ issue.
“The call for segregation would escalate to encompass more and more areas of life in order that the Muslim consumer would not worry about contamination.”
Where will this end?
If we care to preserve our nation-state and plural society, we must firmly reject the ‘halal trolley’ scheme by NSK wholesale supermarket, the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism Ministry, Fomca, and PPIM, while respecting the Muslims’ sensitivity on halal.
As consumers, as voters, as citizens, we must stand up, speak up, and be counted. We must not mistake ‘haramphobia’ for Islam, leading to either unprincipled compromise or misdirected resentment.

WONG CHIN HUAT earned his PhD on the electoral system and party system in West Malaysia from the University of Essex. He is a fellow at the Penang Institute, and a resource person for electoral reform lobby, Bersih.
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