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The Halal Frontier: Muslim Consumers in a Globalized Market

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 The Halal Frontier
  • Book Author:
Johan Fischer
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The Halal Frontier – THE HALAL FRONTIER

Halal is an Arabic word that literally means “permissible” or “lawful.” Conventionally, halal signifies “pure food” with regard to meat in particular by proper Islamic practice such as ritual slaughter and

pork avoidance. In the modern world, halal is no longer an expression of esoteric forms of production, trade, and consumption but part of a huge and expanding globalized market. This book explores modern forms of halal understanding and practice among Malay Muslims in London, that is, the halal consumption of middle-class Malays in the diaspora. The connection between London, Malaysia, and Malays is no accident.

On August 16, 2004, Malaysia’s prime minister, Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi, officially launched the first Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS) in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. The title of the prime minister’s speech was “Window to the Global Halal Network” (

=showclass&cid=36&domain=ehalal). He argued that establishing Malaysia as a “global halal hub” was a major priority for the gov- ernment, and that MIHAS was the largest halal trade fair to be held anywhere in the world. Badawi asserted that halal products are increasingly being recognized by Muslims as well as non-Muslims globally as clean and safe in an era of diseases and “health disasters” due to “unhealthy practices.”

 MIHAS also included a large number of product demonstrations and samples. These product demonstra- tions testified to the fact that, in Malaysia, halal has also proliferated into a wide range of nonfood products (toiletries, medication, and health products) as well as into services such as banking, insurance, education, and certification of halal.

The global trend in recent years is to see that a thriving business in Islamic goods and services has emerged. Britain in particular was put forward as a highly lucrative market for halal. The global halal trade annually amounts to US$150 billion, and it is growing among the world’s approximately 1.3 billion Muslims (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada 2006).

This book explores the penetration of halal as a localized Malaysian practice by capitalism and how halal promotes Malay Muslim and ethnic identities. A central question is the Malaysian state’s efforts to develop and dominate a global market in halal commodities and how Malays in London respond to and are affected by this effort. A plethora of halal commodities and discourses meets in London and filters into the everyday understandings, practices, and contestations of halal among middle-class Malays in the diaspora.

In his speech, Badawi stressed that the vast majority of the population in Malaysia consumes halal on a daily basis. The self-assured- ness of this statement can be ascribed to the fact that the state in Malaysia has systematically regulated halal production, trade, and consumption since the early 1980s.

Malaysian state bodies such as Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia or the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (in English) (JAKIM)1 regulates halal in the interfaces between Islamic revivalism, the state, and consumer culture.

In November 2005, the first Halal Exhibition at the major World Food Market (WFM) was held in London. The venue was ExCeL London. ExCeL London is a major exhibition and conference center in Docklands, an area in the southeastern part of the city that has been redeveloped principally for commercial and residential use.

The organizers of the WFM promoted it as Britain’s largest trade fair for “ethnic” or “world food” products. In addition to the large number of booths displaying halal products, WFM also offered seminars on the business potential of halal in the rapidly expand- ing market. The Halal Exhibition also presents a whole range of new products, such as halal chocolate and toothpaste.

In 2006, a delegation from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATR ADE), Malaysia’s national trade…….

Halal and Malay Middle-Class – Mobility in Malaysia

In this chapter, I discuss the way in which Islam has been national- ized and halal has been standardized in Malaysia. This has taken place through Malaysia’s bold halal vision. I will provide a glimpse into

Malaysia International Halal Showcase (MIHAS), social and physical mobility among the Malay middle class, food and middle-class practice, the ethnic Chinese and Malay other, and middle-class Malays in London. These discussions provide the reader with a broader con- text for exploring “halal” using a multisited perspective that follows Malays from Malaysia to Britain and traces the global circulation of halal commodities.

 I show that halal has become entangled in com- plex webs of political, ethnic, and national significance in modern Malaysia. The concept of a “frontier” refers to different arguments presented in this chapter. Malaysia is a good example of a frontier where different class, religious, and ethnic cultures interpenetrate in a dynamic manner.

 As we shall see, in modern Malaysia, halal is no longer a question of a national or inner frontier but part of a vision to globalize halal markets on a frontier such as London.

My exploration of the Malay Muslim diaspora in London elaborates and continues a study of what I have called Proper Islamic Consumption in Malaysia (Fischer 2008a).1 Building on anthropo- logical fieldwork among suburban Malay middle-class families out- side Kuala Lumpur in 2001–2002, I argued that the more cultures of consumption assert themselves, the more controversies over what Islam is, or ought to be, are intensifying.

As new consumer practices emerge, they give rise to new discursive fields within which the mean- ing of Islam and Islamic practice are being debated. Exploring consumption practices in urban Malaysia, this study showed how diverse forms of Malay middle-class consumption (e.g., of food, clothing, and cars) are understood, practiced, and contested as a particular mode of modern Islamic practice.

The book illustrates ways in which the issue of “proper Islamic consumption” for consumers, the market- place, and the state in contemporary Malaysia evokes a whole range of contradictory Islamic visions, lifestyles, and debates articulating what Islam is or ought to be.

One key effect of these transformations is the deepening and widening concern for halal commodities among Malay Muslims that I call halalization. Halalization signifies a major preoccupation with the proliferation of the concept of halal in a multitude of commodified forms.

A Nationalized Islam

Of the Malaysian population of around 25 million in 2004, about 61 percent are indigenous Malays (virtually all Muslims) and tribal groups, also labeled bumiputera (literally, sons of the soil); 24 percent are Chinese; and 7 percent are Indians ( Since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, Malays have constitutionally only been Malays if they are Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay culture/customs.

Malaysia is not an Islamic state, but Islam is Malaysia’s official religion and is professed by more than 50 percent of the population. In principle, Islam’s “official” role was for ceremonial purposes and public occasions while the nation would remain a secular state (Nagata 1994: 67). At the time of inde- pendence, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) played a major role in determining the constitutional position of Islam as “the religion of the country, a wording believed sufficient to convey the intended notion of a secular state” (Funston 2006: 54) in the eyes of more Islamically oriented groups. Economically, Malaysia has sus- tained rapid development within the past three decades during which the meaning of Islam has become evermore contested.

The rise of divergent dakwah (literally, invitation to salvation) groups in the wider resurgence of Islam in Malaysia challenged the secular foundation of the Malaysian state. Dakwah is both an eth- nic and a political phenomenon, which has transformed Malaysia for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

From the 1970s onward, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the Islamic opposition party that still enjoys widespread popularity, together with dakwah groups, criticized the policies of the government led by UMNO for having “un-Islamic colonial traditions and secular practices which separated religion from political, social and economic issues” (Jomo and Cheek 1992: 85).

Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia or the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM) is the major dakwah group in Malaysia. The organi- zation was formed in 1971 and has traditionally retained its strongest support among students in the campuses of the larger universities in Malaysia. ABIM is a “fairly ‘this-worldly,’ universalistic religious organization, transcending national and some ethnic boundaries at the level of its leadership” (Nagata 1984: 104).

The central message of the organization is that Islam is a self-sufficient way of life that contains the answer to all human universal problems (Shamsul 1994: 104). The ritualistic aspects of the faith are not of vital importance, so it is acceptable for men to wear Western-style shirts and trousers. In comparison with earlier generations of revivalists, ABIM emphasizes a direct engagement, in line with the modernist tradition, with holy texts, bypassing the received wisdom of ulama (Ong 1995: 174).

My fieldwork in suburban Malaysia in 2001–2002 took place on a true frontier. From my fourteenth-floor condominium balcony in a middle-class suburb about 15 kilometers west of Malaysia’s capi- tal, Kuala Lumpur, I had two quite distinct views beneath me: to one side my fieldwork site and to the other side a view over the lush and “rural” greenery of Sungai Penchala.

Sungai Penchala had the status of a Malay reserve, meaning that formally only Malays could buy land in this area. Sungai Penchala was also the home of the com- mune of Darul Arqam (the group has now dispersed and a highway runs through the area). This dakwah group was significantly different from ABIM in several respects.

Darul Arqam or the House of Arqam was an Islamic group whose believers sought to follow the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad

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