After an official suggested that the Lake Toba area on Indonesia’s Sumatra island could be turned into a halal tourism destination, activist Togu Simorangkir came up with the idea of holding a pork festival as an act of resistance.
The event from October 25-26 involved pork cooking and pig catching competitions and was attended by 300,000 people from all over the country, according to Simorangkir.
“It was a big success even though it was just a spontaneous response against making North Sumatra a halal destination,” says Simorangkir, a British-educated activist who founded Alusi Tao Toba, a foundation dedicated to improving the communities around Lake Toba.
“The festival is not about religion, but about maximizing local tourism potential,” he says, adding that most people in the area make a living as farmers.
Muslims are forbidden from eating pork under Islamic rules because the meat is considered unclean.
The Indonesian government established a new halal certification agency under the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 2017. Since then, everything from refrigerators and microwaves to cat food can be certified as halal, or religiously permissible.
Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but is also home to several other religions. About 63 per cent of North Sumatra’s 15 million people are Muslim, but members of the indigenous Batak tribe, to which Simorangkir belongs, are mainly Christian.
Simorangkir says the idea of halal tourism in North Sumatra is divisive.
“I think there’s no need to divide people based on religion,” he says. “Here there are many mosques and people from all over the world come.”
“If they want tourism to thrive here, they should crack down on companies that destroy the environment,” he adds.
Simorangkir says the pork festival was initially opposed by local leaders and tour operators because of fears it would offend Muslims and hurt tourism.
“The word ‘pig’ has negative connotations in our society, when in fact it’s just an animal, like cows and buffaloes,” he says.
Critics fear that halal tourism, intended to attract Muslim visitors from wealthy Middle Eastern countries and all over the world, could mean a ban on alcohol, separate facilities for men and women and other restrictions.
North Sumatra Governor Edy Rahmayadi has denied suggestions he wants to turn the Lake Toba area into a sharia-compliant destination.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” he was quoted as saying by Detik.com, adding that he was simply suggesting that infrastructure be improved to serve visitors from Muslim countries such as Malaysia.
“So, when Muslims come to a place, […] there’s halal food,” he said. “Even in Thailand, where Buddhists are the majority, there are halal restaurants.”
The head of the Religious Ministry’s Halal Certification Administering Agency, Sukoso, says food and drinks, cosmetics, drugs and other consumer products will have to be certified halal by 2026 according to a 2014 law.
“As for household goods, it should be determined what materials they are made of,” he says, adding that products made of leather are subject to halal certification to ensure they do not contain materials from pigs.
The country’s first halal certified corrective glasses were launched in early November by PT Atalla Indonesia, according to the state Antara news agency.
“Even though glasses are not yet among products that need to be halal certified, the company has done it. I appreciate the effort,” Industry Ministry official Gati Wibawaningsih said at the launch event.
Japanese consumer electronics maker Sharp last year launched what it described as the first line of halal refrigerators in Indonesia.
The company expects sales in the segment to grow between 10 and 20 per cent with the introduction of halal products.
“We want our customers to have peace of mind when using our products,” Sharp Electronics Indonesia sales general manager Andri Adi Utomo said in a statement.
But some Indonesians have questioned why consumer products needs to be certified halal, with many taking to social media to ait their views.
“Now that there are halal glasses, watching porn will no longer be sinful,” one Twitter user joked.
Talk of introducing halal tourism to cater to Muslim visitors in the popular resort island of Bali, a mainly Hindu enclave of Indonesia, has also faced opposition from locals.
Earlier this year, vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno sparked controversy after he said he would promote halal tourism in Bali if he and his presidential running mate Prabowo Subianto were elected.
They were defeated by incumbent President Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin in the April election.
Bali Governor I Wayan Koster rejected the idea.
“Bali is a cultural tourism destination,” he told local media. “There’s no need for such narrow branding.”
Jerinx, the frontman of popular Bali-based rock band Superman Is Dead, said the concept was irrelevant.
“Bali has always been friendly to Muslims. What the f*** is wrong with you people?” he wrote on Twitter.