At a time when the government sees halaal as an unfair business practice and has moved to right the situation, the Botswana Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Manpower has come out to say “halaal is not the problem.”
This pronouncement comes three months after President Ian Khama announced at the start of the current parliamentary year in late October, that the Attorney General was in the process of drafting a statutory instrument that would require major food retailers to provide non-halaal sections and products in their shops.
Gaamangwe Mathame, BOCCIM’s Public Relations Officer, says that the Chamber held consultative meetings with members during November last year.
“The objective was to get both affected parties (assumed to be small-scale producers, supermarkets and major retailers) and other affected stakeholders in finding a common solution to this challenge. During these meetings, it emerged that the issue has been blown out of proportion. It appears as though some retailers and chain stores were drawing on halaal as a reason for minimizing their purchases with small farmers, instead of addressing the actual concern of quality, reliability and consistency in supply,” Mathame says in written response to a questionnaire.
He adds that BOCCIM members also resolved that the issue of halaal should never be used to justify not purchasing from small-scale producers. Possible solutions that were suggested are government assistance in the form of setting up abattoirs near production sites, assisting small producers to improve production in order that they can provide “reliable, continuous and consistent supply”.
Satar Dada, the chairman of the Botswana Muslim Association, was one of the people who attended the BOCCIM consultative meetings. He confirms the assertion that the problem is not halaal but the plight and frustration of small poultry farmers who are unable to sell their produce largely because of below-par standards of food hygiene and the inconsistency of their supply. He says that at the last BOCCIM meeting that he attended a question was asked, “How many people here object to halaal?” and not one hand went up.
At another level, the issue goes beyond merely getting the Attorney General to come up with a set of regulations that would compel Muslim shop owners to comply.
Moulana Dawood, an Islamic scholar resident in Gaborone, says that the Koran forbids the faithful from selling products that are non-halaal – haram in other words. Profit made from selling such products is considered haram.
Scholarly views expressed elsewhere suggest that it is also improper for Muslims to invest in company shares that deal with haram products like pork and alcohol. The basic rule in Islam is that if something is declared haram, then a Muslim is required to abstain, not only from involving himself in it, but also from promoting it.
Speaking in his personal capacity, Mohammad Khan, a high-profile opposition politician who also happens to be Muslim and secretary general of the Botswana National Front, says that given the current constitutional framework, there is no way the government can compel Muslim shop owners to sell products their religion expressly forbids them from selling.
“That would mean that the government is imposing injustice on people’s rights and beliefs,” says Khan, adding that such imposition would be a tragic departure from Botswana’s democratic tradition.
The relevant piece of legislation here is Section 11 of the constitution which protects freedom of religion. This provision states that “except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this section the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion”.
The halaal issue has always been contentious and once before has featured during parliamentary debates when Mmadinare MP, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, famously asked: “What is halaal?”
Then as now, there was a great deal of consternation about small-scale poultry farmers being unable to sell their non-halaal produce to the lucrative retail market.
Unlike street vendors whose stalls can be knocked down by bye-law enforcement officials from a local authority, Muslims are major stakeholders in the national economy, own a substantial number of major food retail outlets.
If the issue ultimately gets to a point where some kind of compromise has to be made, the only wiggle room would be in the area of legislation because, as a scared religious text, the Koran cannot be re-written.