The former head of the government’s top Islamic think tank has described a directive prohibiting the display of Christmas and other religious greetings at halal-certified outlets as “illogical”, saying the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) has gone overboard after the previous government failed to make good on its promise to reform the agency.
“They have gone further and further into their error without admitting mistakes,” said Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, the former director-general of the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim).
“Where are the reforms that Malaysia was so looking forward to when the new government came in?” he asked, referring to Pakatan Harapan’s administration which lasted 22 months.
“We have not even started the reforms, we have not even chiselled away at anything. What happened to the reformation of Jakim? There was supposed to be a reform of Jakim.”
Last week, MalaysiaNow reported about a bakery’s refusal to write “Merry Christmas” on a cake as this could violate conditions imposed by Jakim’s halal certification division.
The cake shop instead apologised to the customer and replaced the greeting with “Happy Holidays”.
But Syed Ali said there was no logic to the move.
“First of all, it’s a bakery. What it does is it makes food items, it serves food. Whether or not you put ‘Merry Christmas’ or whatever it is, the ingredients of that food will tell you whether it’s halal or not.”
He said he would not have accepted the excuse given by the cake house.
“If it was me, and that shop had done that to me without my permission when I asked them to put ‘Merry Christmas’ on a cake and they changed it to ‘Happy Holidays’, I would have sued the shop, I would not have paid them.
“Now the religious affairs department also deserves to be taken to court.
“What kind of nonsense is this?” he asked.
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Jakim has since said that it allows such greetings as long as they are not displayed on premises bearing its halal logo.
But Syed Ali cited the Islamic principle that “actions depend on intentions”.
“In this case, I doubt that the premises’ intention is to insult Muslims, or to cause anxiety among Muslims, or to even shake their faith. If that’s the case, how weak and ignorant are we?” he asked.
He said the episode showed the state of ignorance among the Muslim masses, similar to what had happened with Christians in medieval Europe.
“We are back to 10th-century Europe, where everybody was just waiting for the church to issue an edict on what we can and cannot do, what we can read and what we can say,” said Syed Ali.
He said the rule also contradicts a fatwa issued in 2018 by the current Islamic affairs minister, Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, in which the former mufti dismissed claims by some preachers that Muslims should not wish “Merry Christmas”.
Syed Ali said Zulkifli’s fatwa, written when he was the federal territories mufti, was well-articulated.
“In that explanation, he said that you should say ‘Merry Christmas’ to your firends as long as your intention is not to propagate the religion or be part of it, which every Muslim in wishing their friends has the intention of doing, as a friendly gesture.”
Syed Ali said Jakim had strayed far from the original objective of ensuring halal food in demanding that a premise should also be certified as halal.
“This halal and haram status that Jakim used to have was for food consumption, for make-up, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, even though that one is also debatable, but primarily it was for food products.
“And now, all of a sudden, we have included premises as well? It’s ridiculous.”