Proving Halal to European Muslims

Proving Halal to European Muslims

What procedures are used to determine whether a foodstuff is halal to Muslims? John Bowen researched the world of halal certification in the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

If for hundreds of years Muslims prepared their foods and ate them, perhaps after a blessing, in recent decades there have arisen formalized procedures to determine whether or not a product is halal (“admissible”) to Muslims. In several Muslim-majority countries, notably Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Gulf states, state bodies play this role (or authorize others to do so). Elsewhere it falls to private bodies to create these halal certification, or audit, services.

What does this mean locally? The local butcher who for years sold meat assumed by all to be halal, because he was after all a Muslim and of good character, now might post a sticker attesting to the halal quality of the meat. His shop may also carry packaged goods, local or imported, that carry a halal stamp issued by a trusted international certifier. Identifying consumer goods as halal can be highly profitable. While estimates of the value of the world-wide market for halal products vary widely, they are all in the hundreds of billions of US dollars—and what is relatively recent is the notion that there is such a thing as a global halal market which can be assigned a total market value.

What changed? Mainly, a rise in trade and a call for more explicit guidance in religious matters. First, by the 1970s, Muslim-majority countries found themselves importing more and more goods from countries that were themselves not Muslim-majority. Business was conducted through multiple intermediaries. Interpersonal trust no longer could be relied on to guarantee that these imports were free of elements that would make them not halal. Inevitably, scandals arose, often involving the contamination of food or medicine with pork products, leading, notably, Malaysia and Indonesia, and later the Gulf states, to develop state agencies charged with ascertaining the halal quality of imports.

How does this work across Europe? The major halal auditing services rely on reciprocal relations of trust with their equivalent services in other countries. For example, when the auditor housed in the Paris Mosque is asked to certify as halal chicken imported from the Netherlands, they ask a Dutch auditor whom they trust to carry it out; the result becomes part of the Mosque’s data base. Halal Food Authority, largest in Britain, certifies birds sold for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and if a Dutch supplier is involved, they ask the same Dutch service to inspect that supplier. Often auditors from these and other countries share audit reports, and may be entered into each certifier’s data bases.

These relationships may be reciprocal, and they are based on trust, often among individuals as well as among the auditing bodies. Halal auditors come to know one another through participation at halal fairs or, more importantly, at training sessions held in Malaysia and Indonesia. These two countries have their own state halal auditing bodies, who have virtual monopolies on the right to recognize a product as halal in their respective countries. These bodies also grant (or withhold) recognition of, say, a Dutch or French audit body. This secondary recognition gives the European producer entrée to other export markets, because other Muslim-majority countries generally accept a Malaysian or Indonesian imprimatur as sufficient proof of the competence of the European halal certification body. This special status means that a Dutch company, for example, may affix the Malaysian halal label to its exports when it has been successfully audited by the European audit service, without the necessity of a direct audit by Malaysia.

Adding to the growth of these services has been a sea-change in how many young Muslims orient themselves toward their religion: no longer reporting “how we do things here”, a habitus with low reflexivity based on growing up in a Muslim context, but asking “how does Islam say we should do things?”, a self-conscious search for correct religious norms, where “Islam” meant the sacred texts and the opinions of high-status scholars, with a preference for those living in the Arabian heartlands.

These shifts toward a more explicit reflecting on and questioning normativity is of course not unique to Islam. It also characterized the responses of Catholic institutions to Protestant charges in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counter-Reformation, and to contemporary reform movements in Buddhism and Judaism.

From this desire for proofs of halal emerged a second auditing wave, new bodies on a mission of establishing purity and piety for local Muslim consumers. They proclaimed themselves to be more rigorous than the first kind of body, for example by demanding more rigorous tests to ensure that animals are not killed by stunning, which is not a halal way to kill—or by rejecting stunning altogether. These newer bodies included Halal Correct in the Netherlands, Britain’s Halal Monitoring Committee, and the French À Votre Service, founded as part of the broader Young French Muslims movement and as an effort to create a body outside state control. These more recent bodies are more likely to extend their inspections beyond the production line and into the shops and restaurants.

These new institutions of halal certification are decentralized, and even when they rely on each other’s findings, and despite the global nature of their charge, they reflect national priorities and concerns. French, British and Dutch halal certifiers are part of French, British, and Dutch histories.

My current work is based on recent fieldwork in the Netherlands, Britain and France with the institutions intended to “prove halal” in the double sense of testing and demonstrating, analyzing and persuading. How do such institutions arise, and to what extent do they carry their birthmarks with them, in a kind of cultural, perhaps national, path dependency? In what ways do they develop in response to global markets? What technical procedures have they developed to convincingly demonstrate that something is or is not halal? What are the pertinent rhetorics of proof?

In studying these efforts, I look for the devices that actors use to prove an item as halal. By “device”, I bring in material-semiotic approaches to how we establish or perform claims, that ask how a certificate, a rating, or a brand can compensate for an actor’s limited knowledge by serving as a “judgment device” or “trust device”. Personal networks can serve as trust devices—indeed this is how people have navigated their way through uncertainty for most of human history. Other terms, such as the French “épreuve”, or trial, add to this particular understanding of a device as featuring a series of fixed procedures, as in a legal trial, an experimental protocol, or, as here, a series of tests and inspections. A judicial verdict, the description of a new molecule, or the issuance of a halal certificate, all embody and at the same time index the successful working-through of these procedures. Of particular importance are the “felicity conditions” for performative acts that create new statuses and qualities, such as “married”, “divorced”, or “halal”.