The key forces underlying the 'pretzel dogs' controversy

The recent controversy in Malaysia over Auntie Anne's "pretzel dogs" snack not being issued with a halal certificate took social media by storm.

Some netizens alleged that Jakim (the Federal Department of Islamic Development in Malaysia) refused to issue the certificate to the American chain because the word "dog" can confuse Muslims. All this while, Muslims in Malaysia have had no qualms eating hot dogs, the popular name for sausages. Minister for Tourism and Culture Nazri Aziz was quick to criticise Jakim.

Riding on the accusation, some observers even accused Jakim of economically benefiting from the halal certification process, equating it to a capitalistic venture. Others also blamed the body for using halal certificates as a way of asserting its authority in the religious sphere.

However, the religious body has refuted these accusations, saying that it rejected Auntie Anne's application because the paperwork was incomplete, and had nothing to do with the term "dog".

Some of the accusations directed at Jakim may be unfounded. Jakim is purely carrying out its duties as a government body, and meeting society's expectations for halal certification to be enlarged to affect how Muslims should lead their lives. The crux of the matter is not about Jakim profiting from the exercise, or flexing its powers, but how its officials reflect a certain mode of thinking, which is representative of the majority of Malaysian Muslims.

There are two key forces at play. The majority of Malaysian Muslims' religious outlook has been shaped by the Islamic resurgence movement since the 1970s. In addition, there is a growing Muslim middle class wanting to keep up with evolving global trends. Jakim's policies are driven by these factors.

But for a long time, Muslims have lived comfortably with non-Muslims in multicultural Malaysia, freely dining and mingling with them while observing their dietary requirements. In the company of non-Muslims, some Muslims go vegetarian, consume only seafood and refrain from drinking alcohol.

Muslims in general follow a strict diet. They are forbidden to consume, among other things, pork, alcohol and poultry not slaughtered according to Islamic rites. Some Muslim jurists consider pigs and dogs unclean in Islam, to the extent that Muslims who come into contact with these animals must carry out a particular cleansing procedure using mud and water. But for a long time, Muslims have lived comfortably with non-Muslims in multicultural Malaysia, freely dining and mingling with them while observing their dietary requirements. In the company of non-Muslims, some Muslims go vegetarian, consume only seafood and refrain from drinking alcohol.

From the 1970s, Muslims in Malaysia began to express their piety outwardly. Various groups have demanded greater Islamisation of the state and society. Their rallying call is the Quranic verse "Islam is a way of life". The verse in itself calls on Muslims to hold the universal values in religion such as social justice, equality, and human rights.

However, the resurgence movement took a step further and lobbied for Islamisation of institutions and systems, and interpreted religious texts in a conservative manner. They demanded Islamic banking, Islamic finance, Islamic state and an expansion of Islamic laws.

There were also other trends: more Muslim women put on the veil in order to obey the Islamic dress code, and, by way of meeting the requirements of Islamic diet, there was demand for halal certification of restaurants owned by non-Muslims.

Before the Islamic resurgence, Muslims in Malaysia led their religious lives without having to look out for such certificates because there was none to begin with. The majority would eat at home or patronise eateries owned by Muslims. By the 1980s, the number of Muslim professionals plugging into an urban and cosmopolitan lifestyle grew, as a result of the New Economic Policy. The growing Muslim middle class wanted to be attuned to global culture and consumption. They identified themselves with Western brand names like A&W, KFC and McDonald's while demanding that these brands conform to Islamic standards.

Halal certification gives assurance that practising Muslims can be part of the global culture, and be good Muslims at the same time. It must be qualified that one of the important measures of being a good Muslim, in the eyes of the middle class, is through observing the Islamic diet.

Today, the middle class generally forms the conservative camp. It tends to analyse issues in dichotomous terms - permissible (halal) versus non-permissible (haram). The government and civil society need to engage the conservative camp to impress upon it that, in reality, issues are more complex.

Fortunately, in the Auntie Anne's pretzel dogs episode, politicians were quick to press Jakim to clarify the misconceptions. Had Jakim's position been as what netizens alleged, it could have potentially triggered further doubts on other food products containing unIslamic-sounding titles, such as the drink "root beer".

But the bigger challenge for conservative Malaysian Muslims is to realise that halal certification began only in the 20th century. It is a recent phenomenon and has never been a concern of pious savants of the past. Ultimately, Muslims must be able to discern what is good or bad for themselves rather than be overly reliant on others to dictate it for them.

•Dr Norshahril Saat is a fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2016, with the headline 'The key forces underlying the 'pretzel dogs' controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe