Sign of the times? Indonesia takes the (halal) cake

A sign stating that the Tous Les Jours bakery would not write messages on cakes for celebrations not in accordance with shari’a prompted a fierce backlash from Indonesians online and in person.

 

In several countries, campaigns for gay marriage have sparked controversies around conservative Christian bakers refusing to supply wedding cakes to gay couples. In a twist on this theme, Indonesia has had its own cake controversy – but this time about how a Christmas cake might breach Islamic norms.

 

The story involves food, shopping malls and religion – three things that engage most Indonesians on a daily basis – and it started just weeks after the official start date for Indonesia’s comprehensive new halal food certification regime, 17 October.

 

The drama began on social media when a Twitter user shared a photo and video of a sign at a branch of the relatively upmarket bakery chain Tous Les Jours. This South Korean brand is represented in dozens of shopping malls, many in the capital Jakarta.

 

The sign said that the store would not write messages on cakes that celebrated religious holidays, such as Christmas or Chinese New Year, or celebrations that are not in accordance with shari’a. It referred to the new System of Halal Product Assurance to justify its position.

 

The video quickly went viral. Internet users bombarded the brand’s Instagram page with messages calling for it to respect Indonesian diversity. In another viral video the following day, two women angrily reprimanded staff at a Tous Les Jours outlet, telling them to go to the Middle East if they couldn’t accept Indonesian diversity.

 

 

The story generated such a strong public reaction that the management of the bakery chain were forced to issue an apology. They said the rule was not company policy and that in conducting its business in Indonesia, Tous Les Jours strongly prioritised tolerance and diversity.

 

The Indonesian Ulama Council’s (MUI) Research Institute for Food, Drugs and Cosmetics (LPPOM) responded, denying that there was any regulation requiring rules such as those stated in the sign. An MUI representative said that product names must be consistent with Islamic law to be halal but assured the public that there was no rule against consumer requests for cake customisation, so long as those customised with non-Islamic greetings were not publicly displayed.

 

Was Tous Les Jours misinterpreting the existing regulations? And if so, what could have been the motivation for its intolerant position?

 

MUI’s decades-long monopoly on issuing halal certification was ended with the 2014 Law on Halal Product Assurance. The change was inspired in large part by longstanding concerns over a lack of transparency in MUI’s certification procedures.

 

Under the 2014 law, all products traded in Indonesia must now be halal certified, rather than certification being voluntary as in the past. MUI still keeps sole authority to issue religious rulings about what products comply with Islamic teachings and can be halal certified, but MUI no longer carries out the certification itself.

 

Instead, under an implementing regulation for the new law issued earlier this year, certification is now the responsibility of a new agency – the BPJPH – which is overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

 

While some consumers do prefer shari’a compliant products, it has become apparent that Indonesia is not quite ready for the new halal certification paradigm. The sheer breadth of the 2014 law has raised concerns that the regime could place unnecessary burdens on producers. There are also fears that certification of products that have little or no relationship to Islamic values could contribute to the growing commodification of Islam.

 

BPJPH does not seem ready to deal with these challenges. Although MUI’s LPPOM has offered to assist the new agency while it establishes its procedures, civil society organisations such as Indonesia Halal Watch have pointed out many of its weaknesses, including a basic lack of forms and information for certifications.

 

It would seem the Tous Les Jours sign was a reflection of this lack of clarity. There is no indication on the company website that it purports to supply halal products. Presumably because the law is still so early in its establishment, the bakery chain – and indeed most retailers in Indonesia – is yet to make a declaration about non-certification.

 

So what can we determine about the motivation for the sign and the reasons for the backlash?

 

First, it should be put in the context of the decades-long debate over how Indonesian Muslims should engage with their Christian brothers and sisters during Christmas.

 

A major contributor to this long-running debate has been the MUI. It has issued a fatwa against Muslims attending Christmas celebrations but has yet to issue a fatwa on wishing Christians Merry Christmas. Ma’ruf Amin, vice president and former head of MUI’s fatwa division, has said that Muslims were better off not saying the greeting, but was recorded doing so himself ahead of the 2019 elections.

 

Second, the bakery sign indicates clear recognition of the evolving regulation of halal products and may have been a poorly conceived effort by staff to interpret the MUI’s unclear stance over Christmas greetings. It was also produced in an environment of growing religious conservatism in Indonesia and a growth in Islamic consumption. It may have also been an attempt by the bakery to reassure their clientele, and shore up their business.

 

Why was there a backlash against this incident when MUI fatwa on matters of belief (aqidah) are usually accepted by the Muslim community? Was it because the sign was forcing an MUI fatwa on the wider population and not leaving it optional, as fatwas traditionally are?

 

Or was it because the sign was seen as intolerance of an “official” religion (Christianity), rather than the more common intolerance directed towards minority Islamic sects like Ahmadiyah and Shi’a, or LGBT Indonesians?

 

Or was the strong backlash against the sign a result of increasing government rhetoric attacking Islamic radicalism? Do people now feel more emboldened to stand up for Indonesian diversity and oppose MUI than in the past?

 

There has been much commentary in recent years about policies under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo that may signal a return to a more repressive mode of governance, especially as regards his Islamist critics.

 

Following the 2019 election, he reminded officials of their obligation to support the state’s pluralist ideology Pancasila and installed a former military general as the Minister for Religious Affairs in his new cabinet. Last month, the government signed a controversial joint ministerial decree on addressing “radicalism” among civil servants. Have these developments helped inspire ordinary citizens to stand up in defence of minorities?

 

It is probably too early to tell from this one incident whether apparent political signalling about new limits to Islamisation can generate popular action. On balance, it appears the cake controversy reflects a growing awareness of the new halal food regime and the increasingly entrenched support among Muslims for public recognition of their faith. Yet at the same time, the strong public backlash following the release of the video and the tone of the official statements suggests all parties involved agree that the sign was overreach.

 

It is likely that this kind of situation will occur more frequently in the future. This is not just to do with slow implementation of halal regulations; the issue goes deeper than a message piped onto a cake. As with the controversy over cakes for gay weddings, it is the context that explains when a commercial trade is considered by some to be unacceptable.

 

Is it possible to have your halal cake and eat it too? In the end, MUI’s comment that non-Islamic greetings may be permitted provided they remain out of sight reflects the relatively modest limits of tolerance among more conservatively minded Muslims.

 

Dr Stewart Fenwick is the author of ‘Blasphemy, Islam and the State: Pluralism and Liberalism in Indonesia’, published by Routledge in 2017. He is an honorary professor at Australian Catholic University and Senior Associate at the Centre for Indonesian Law Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School.