CHINA’S cities abound with restaurants and food stalls catering to Muslims as well as to the many other Chinese who relish the distinctive cuisines for which the country’s Muslims are renowned. So popular are kebabs cooked by Muslim Uighurs on the streets of Beijing that the city banned outdoor grills in 2014 in order to reduce smoke, which officials said was exacerbating the capital’s notorious smog (the air today is hardly less noxious).
Often such food is claimed to be qing zhen, meaning “pure and true”, or halal, prepared according to traditional Islamic regulations. But who can tell? Last year angry Muslims besieged a halal bakery in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, after pork sausages were found in the shop’s delivery van. There have been several scandals in recent years involving rat meat or pork being sold as lamb. These have spread Muslim mistrust of domestically produced halal products.
In response, some local governments have introduced regulations requiring food purporting to be halal to be just that (though not going into detail of what halal means, such as the slaughter of animals with a knife by a Muslim). Earlier this year, however, the national legislature suspended its work on a bill that would apply such stipulations countrywide.
There is much demand for one. Local rules are often poorly enforced. Advocates of a national law say a lack of unified standards is hampering exports to Muslim countries. According to Wang Guoliang of the Islamic Association of China, the country’s halal food industry makes up a negligible 0.1% of the global market.
The government began drafting a national halal law in 2002. But Muslim communities in China have varying definitions of the term. Work on the bill was slow. Each year, during the legislature’s annual session in March, Muslim delegates called for faster progress. But there were opponents, too. Some scholars argued that the government should not regulate on matters relating to religious faith. Others said that by giving in to the Muslims’ demands, China would encourage them to press for more concessions and ultimately form their own enclaves run by sharia.
Such views may have given pause to China’s leaders. In April, at a high-level meeting on religious affairs, President Xi Jinping said religion should be prevented from interfering with the law. That month Wang Zhengwei, a Muslim official who had been pushing for halal legislation, was removed from his post as the head of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission.
Also in April, the Communist Party chief of Ningxia urged officials to “sharpen [their] vigilance” against the use of halal labels on products such as toilet paper, toothpaste and cosmetics. And the government of Qinghai province ordered the inspection of Muslim-only toilets and hospital rooms, as well as shops catering to Muslims, to make sure that halal symbols were being used only on food. Xinjiang, the far-western region that is home to the Uighurs, recently introduced an anti-terrorism law threatening punishment of those who “overextend” halal rules. Officials clearly worry that those who do so might be the same sort of people who embrace jihad.
Ismael An, a Muslim writer, says this is overreacting. “Supporters of the halal law are not the so-called extremists, because real extremists don’t make demands through legislation,” he says. On the internet, however, a small but vocal group of Islamophobes has been calling for a boycott of halal-certified products. They say the price of such goods factors in payments to Islamic groups that grant the certificates—they do not want to give the religion even indirect support. Ironically, it is the non-Muslim love of Muslim food that will ensure the campaign will not succeed.
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