The Jakarta Post
For decades the stench of the lucrative 'business' behind the halal certification has been more than apparent to the public, but suspicions have drifted with the passing winds.
That is until a 'halal for cash' story, allegedly involving the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), was picked up by Tempo magazine.
The MUI brings together Muslim figures from various Islamic organizations whose integrity and knowledge about Islam is beyond question.
Therefore, it has been taken for granted that everything the MUI did was for the good of the ummah (the Muslim community): Much in the same way Muslims preparing for haj are reluctant to query the policy of the directorate general of haj at the Religious Affairs Ministry, which administers pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. Yet, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) uncovered suspected irregularities in the management of the haj funds.
Tempo quoted Mohamed el-Mouelhy, the president of the Halal Certification Authority Australia, admitting to having spent A$28,000 (US$25,000) on airfares, hotel and lodging and travel allowance when he arranged the visit of MUI officials, including chairman Amidhan Shaberah.
Amidhan branded El-Mouelhy's remarks as libel, saying his trip was covered by the state.
The report also said Amidhan sat on the Brussels-based Halal Food Council of Europe as a member of the advisory board, which earned him $5,000 a month, but the MUI official dismissed the findings.
It was only ever a matter of time before the report went public as the council holds the monopoly to certify certain products as halal, or permissible under Islam. Currently the MUI charges Rp 5 million ($430) for halal certification, but as House of Representatives lawmaker Mahrus Munir says the 20-year-old scheme needs revision due to a lack of audit and accountability.
To put an end to the monopoly, lawmakers initiated in 2006 a bill on halal certification to transfer the halal certificate authority from the MUI to a new, independent institution. Protection of Indonesian consumers, who are mostly Muslims, was the reason behind the initiative.
The struggle for power has intensified not only because of the 'halal for cash' report, but also, and more importantly, the government's bid to control halal certification. The MUI resisted the political move, claiming its competence and experience.
The matter of halal of course falls under the auspices of ulema, including the MUI, but certification for commercial products is a different issue as it requires scientific, administrative and legal expertise. As the certified products are for public consumption, a strict control mechanism is imperative. Under the existing arrangement, who dares to exercise oversight of the MUI?
Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, needs an independent body ' which could include ulema ' to conduct halal certification, merely for the sake of public accountability and transparency.