Snapshot from Malaysia

‘Hot dog’ name ban shows officials’ desire to take offence

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Islam Malaysia

In conversation with an Uber driver in Kuala Lumpur, it will never be long before he mentions hot dogs. They are a subject on everyone’s lips now, after Malaysian religious authorities denied halal certification to an American fast-food chain partly because, they said, the name “hot dog” would confuse Muslims.

As is often the case with these things in Malaysia, the thing under the microscope now has never really offended anyone before—apart from the people at Jakim, that is, the country’s islamic affairs department.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia’s brand of Islam, dogs are widely considered unclean, and any reference to the animals by a food brand—in this case Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Dogs—would harm an application for halal certification, according to Jakim’s halal official, Sirajuddin Suhaimee. This does not seem to have been the case until now.

The incident is the latest in a growing trend towards religious conservatism in Malaysia. It also comes at a time when critics of the government have been accusing party leaders of politicising the country’s traditionally moderate approach to Islam to gain greater support in rural, less educated parts of the country.

The Umno party, which represents the Malay Muslim majority and has led all ruling coalition governments since independence in 1957, relies heavily on votes from kampung​ areas, which are often remote and heavily Muslim.

The response by politicians and on social media has been furious, and is almost entirely in support of the sausage. This was not an issue that anyone should have bothered seizing on in the first place. The savvy political masters through whom these Islamic decrees almost always originate should have known better. 

Even officials in the opposition Islamist PAS party have voiced their disagreement towards Jakim’s decision. One senior member of the ruling coalition’s Chinese party, the MCA, said the Islamic authority’s decision had turned Malaysia into an “international laughing stock​”. 

This is because it suggested that Malaysians “Muslims or otherwise, are unable to comprehend nor distinguish whether or not food like ‘hot dog’ and ‘Pretzel dog’ contain dog meat​,” said Leong Kim Soon.

There has followed a Twitter storm with hundreds of messages questioning the implications of hot dogs being made non-halal. 

One post referred to a popular local fruit whose name translates to feline facial parts.

Will Jakim go even further to suggest that ‘mata kucing’ cannot be consumed for it contains cats’ eyes​?” 

Sirajuddin has since toned down his rhetoric, saying that his earlier statement did not specifically to products sold by Auntie Anne’s. The minister for Islamic affairs told parliament that Jakim had only made a proposal and not rejected the name “hot dogs​”. Jakim’s guidelines were mere suggestions, he added. In Auntie Anne’s case, it seems that a compromise can be made.

But Jakim has a history of forcing businesses to change the names of their products. Because of supposedly confused Muslims, A&W’s Coney Dog is now known as “Chicken Coney​” or “Beef Coney​” and its famous root beer is now simply “RB​” to remove any reference to the alcoholic drink.

It looks like Pretzel Dogs will now join these proscribed names even though it is hard to find one officially recorded instance of dog-related confusion. Jakim have once again proved their worth, and Uber drivers have plenty more to talk about.

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