So, I went down the rabbit hole of Australia’s anti-halal campaign, and things got pretty weird.
“We have a right to have an opinion … we don’t like Islam,” conservative firebrand Pauline Hanson declared. Just hours earlier, Hanson had delivered a fierce speech to hundreds of protesters in Queensland. It was a balmy Brisbane day in early April, and hundreds of Queenslanders had joined nationwide rallies dubbed “Reclaim Australia.” The streets were awash with wonky swastika tattoos, Australian flags and home-made placards declaring the supposed imminent takeover of Australia by Muslims.
Among the key complaints of protest leaders like Hanson was halal food certification. Many of Australia’s most well known food products like Vegemite now carry some form of halal certification – which means the product has been cleared by a certification company as fit for consumption by Muslims following a halal diet.
“We don’t need this, we’re being hoodwinked,” Hanson said during a televised interview with Nine Network’s Today show following the anti-Islam protest.
All over Australia, anti-halal protesters like Hanson have gone on the offensive, boycotting consumer products sporting halal certification. One of the largest anti-halal groups is “Boycott Halal in Australia,” (BHIA), whose Facebook page boasts over 77,000 likes. The Facebook page functions largely as a place for anti-halal campaigners to denounce companies with halal certification, and encourage other Facebook users to join the growing boycott.
Yet BHIA itself is now facing push-back from an unlikely source – a group of online satirists who run a parody anti-halal page, also called “Boycott Halal in Australia”.
“Apples are halal! Boycott apples!” the satirical page warned in a recent post.
In another tongue-in-cheek statement, they declared Hanson herself halal certified.
One of the satirists behind the fake BHIA page told teleSUR the comedy writes itself.
“The range of products that is supposedly halal certified is pretty hilarious. Everything from beer, wine, pork products, cat foods, batteries,” said one of the pranksters, identified as Halle. Along with Halle, teleSUR spoke with three other satirists that run the fake anti-halal Facebook page: Bob, Edwina and Toby. All four names are are all pseudonyms used at the request of the individuals; who said they were concerned anti-halal campaigners could “target” them if their identities were revealed.
Origins of the Anti-Halal Campaign
According to Halle, the anti-halal movement largely relies on a steady supply of shoddy “research” to fuel its campaign.
“Someone makes a claim that X product is certified, occasionally ‘backing it up’ with proof in the form of an obviously photoshopped image or meme. It gets shared a few hundred times and it becomes ‘fact‘,” Halle said.
Indeed, it’s not hard to find the source of many of BHIA’s claims.
One of the more popular anti-halal blogs, “Islam4Infidels.com,” asserts, “So, what happens to the money the halal certification companies rake in? Many of the companies are registered to mosques … the mosques use the money to spread (I)slam through mosques, schools, and publicity, and to ship funds out of their host countries to (I)slamic ‘charities‘.”
According to Islam4Infidels.com, “many” Islamic charities that benefit from donations from halal certifiers have “links to, or support, terrorism.”
Both the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and money laundering investigation agency AUSTRAC have publicly stated they have no evidence linking halal certification bodies to terrorist organizations.
Yet that hasn’t stopped anti-halal campaigners claiming there are links between the halal industry and terrorism.
In an April 22 post to the BHIA Facebook page, one anti-halal campaigner stated, “the Australian Crime Commission said there was no indication that such dealings are going on. Can you believe the high level of corruption in our own legal system(?)”
As Halle put it, anti-halal campaigners “think spurious Youtube clips and right-wing blogs are credible news sources.”
“They simply don’t understand they are being had,” Halle said.
Moreover, anti-halal blogs, including Islam4Infidels.com, regularly cite the Muslim Brotherhood as a key terrorist beneficiary of donations from halal-certification companies. The Muslim Brotherhood is not considered a terrorist organization by the Australian government, but as Halle put it, anti-halal campaigners are “not people who take the time, whether through laziness or inability, to independently research the claims put forward on the various anti-halal certification (Facebook) pages and websites.”
“So we have the situation where lies become the truth. Ignorance wins out,” Halle said.
Despite its dubious claims, the anti-halal boycott campaign is gaining momentum across Australia. The movement first hit headlines in November 2014, when campaigners successfully pressured the small Fleurieu Milk and Yoghurt Company to drop its recently acquired halal-certification. The company had purchased the certification to secure a lucrative contract with Emirates airlines. The Australian company said the deal was worth AU$50,000 (US$39,000), and would have been a boon for the local economy – if the anti-halal movement hadn’t stepped in. At the time, the company said it simply couldn’t afford to put up a protracted public fight against the halal boycott movement, so it dropped its certification.
Then in mid April, the anti-halal campaign was again in the spotlight when BHIA urged its members to “investigate” a prominent South Australian winery, Jacob’s Creek.
“MEMBERS please investigate JACOBS CREEK! One of our members [LA] says … I have phoned Jacobs Creek customer service … they confirmed they are Halal certified. I explained to the nice young girl the reasons why I will not be purchasing their wine anymore,” BHIA posted to its tens of thousands of followers.
Shortly later, the winery issued a polite statement assuring its customers “our wines are not suitable for those people following a halal diet.”
“Therefore we do not have halal certification displayed on the packaging of our products,” Jacob’s Creek said.
A spokesperson for the winery told teleSUR the statement was issued in response to a “very active Facebook page called Boycott Halal in Australia.”
BHIA later blamed an “infiltrator” for a false tip-off that the winery was supposedly halal-certified, though the parody anti-halal Facebook page says a genuine anti-halal campaigner was actually responsible.
In one long running joke on the page run by Toby, Edwina, Bob and Halle, they claim QR codes are part of a Muslim conspiracy.
“The truth is that the member who alerted them to Jacob’s Creek wine being ‘halal‘ did so in good faith. She believed that the infographics made about QR codes being halal were true. This member has now disabled her FB account. No doubt she is horrified to be accused of being a Muslim plant,” they claimed.
BHIA Gets Rickrolled
Another of the parody BHIA page’s administrators told teleSUR this wasn’t the first time the anti-halal campaigners had been easily duped.
“I used to troll their page and tell them that Sydney water was going to be halal certified. Eventually other people started repeating it. There are still a few that believe it,” Edwina explained.
Toby, the fourth member of the parody halal boycott page, listed a slew of other pranks they’ve pulled on the real anti-halal campaigners. In one prank, they responded to a call-out from anti-halal campaigners for their supporters to send in photographs of themselves and their families. Instead, the group of satirists and a slew of supporters sent them photographs of historic figures like the WWI-era German fighter pilot known popularly as the Red Baron, and the notorious Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini.
In another prank, they subtly tried to direct as many anti-halal campaigners as possible to view the Youtube clip of the 1987 Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The song is the butt of a long running internet joke called “Rickrolling.”
Edwina confessed, “I’m a sucker for a good Rick roll. At the moment it’s my favorite piece of BHIA stupidity.”
“There are so many dumb things they say and believe, its hard to put a finger on,” Toby said.
Halle argued any dubious claims that support the anti-halal boycott are taken at face value by groups like BHIA purely out of “hatred, fear and ignorance of Islam.” It’s this growing Islamophobia that prompted Halle to take action against the anti-halal campaign by joining the fake BHIA page.
“I can’t help but see parallels between the current climate of Islamophobia and the attitudes against Jewish people in 1930s Germany. The language is the same; Muslims are blamed for everything. They are dehumanized. They are called filthy animals. People are calling for their eradication. Seriously, I read and hear this time and time again each and every day,” Halle said.
Speaking to teleSUR, one of BHIA’s administrators argued their boycott has nothing to do with Islamophobia.
“For the record, I could care less what god anyone prays too. My issue is when I have to pay for them to do so,” the BHIA spokesperson said.
When asked about products that Australians were being forced to pay more for due to halal certification, the BHIA spokesperson conceded they couldn’t point to any specific consumer goods in Australia.
“I live in the (United) States,” the BHIA spokesperson admitted.
However, they did cite one U.S. product they have started boycotting because they believed it had become halal certified.
“(I) used to love Stouffer’s Mac N Cheese,” they said. The spokesperson explained their favorite instant macaroni and cheese used to cost US$2 off the supermarket shelf – but not anymore.
“After (halal) certification the price rose to (US)$2.36. That’s 36 cents per package sold after certification,” the spokesperson said.
Stouffer’s has informed teleSUR none of their products carry halal certification. A spokesperson explained products like their macaroni and cheese may not be “eligible” for halal certification “because of some of our manufacturing practices and the ingredients used.”
One of their consumer response representatives, Edie Sweet further pointed out, “We also don’t have ultimate control over the retail shelf price of our products, since retailers set the price paid by our consumers.”
“Although you may see price variations in our products from store to store, the price of our products is usually in line with competitive quality brands,” Sweet stated.
Yet price increases for consumers aren’t the only concerns of BHIA. Their spokesperson said they believed halal certification is also part of a “stealth jihad,” and constituted a form of Jizya – a kind of tax levied on non-Muslims in a number of Islamic societies until around the late 19th Century.
The BHIA’s spokesperson asserted Jizya is still practiced “in all Muslim controlled countries.”
“Now this last part is just my opinion but I believe that Halal certification is a stealth form of Jizya in non-Muslim countries,” BHIA said.
No government in the modern world practices Jizya – but facts like this mean little to the anti-halal movement, according to the third satirist interviewed by teleSUR.
“People don’t want facts. They’re simply looking for reasons to object to something they’ve already decided they don’t like,” said Bob, from the satirical Facebook page.
To Bob, the anti-halal movement is nothing more than a “socially acceptable way to express your Islamophobia/racist tendencies.”
“A lot of people are partly or wholly on board with this. I’m surprised, actually. It seems to be gaining traction, which defies all reason and logic,” he lamented.
Riding the Wave of Islamophobia
Amplified by sympathetic media, and cloaked in the language of consumer rights, Bob said the anti-halal movement is more dangerous than explicit Islamophobia thanks to its ability to draw in a broader section of society. Yet the campaign remains heavily dependent on a growing wave of Islamophobia as its support base, according to Halle.
“They are definitely capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment and the horrific actions of a relative few extremists. Muslims are the ‘bad guys‘ of the western world at the moment,” she said.
For the people behind the parody page, Islamophobia is a very personal issue.
Edwina, who identifies as Muslim, explained, “I really had no idea that people hated me so much. If I’m honest, it’s a bit hurtful.”
One example Edwina pointed to was the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, which left two hostages and gunman Man Haron Monis dead. During the highly publicized standoff, Edwina’s husband was in a cafe in another part of the city.
“The woman behind the counter called the police. They turned up and watched him eat his lunch. One person had a panic attack,” Edwina said.
She continued, “I have asked him not to order meals with hummus in future.”
Since the hostage crisis, Muslims appear to have been targeted in a wave of vandalism across Australia. A mosque in Toowoomba has been torched twice in recent months. A group which tracks allegations of anti-Muslim attacks, the Islamophobia Register of Australia, says women are often the most common targets of Islamophobic attacks.
“We have heard of cases of women, who are otherwise confident and deeply devout, who have taken off their hijabs in response to the current climate,” the register’s Mariam Veiszadeh has told Al Jazeera.
Islamophobic sentiments stretch as far as the halls of power in Australia. On September 22, 2014, Senator Jacqui Lambie described Muslims as “maniacs and depraved humans will not stop committing their cold blooded butchery and rapes until every woman in Australia wears a burka and is subservient to men.”
The satirists behind the parody anti-halal Facebook page all agreed Islamophobia is on the rise, and needs to be confronted.
“Ignoring it only allows it to gain greater traction. The has to be a clear message that hateful vilification and bigotry are not ok. We can’t allow people to pass this off as consumer rights or patriotism or whatever. Call them out as racists,” said Bob.
Halle argued humor is the best medicine.
“Showing up the anti-halal movement for the ridiculousness that it is. People find it easier to have a laugh at themselves than be preached at,” Halle said.
Toby added that the media needs to play a greater role in covering issues like halal with “clear and unambiguous facts.”
“(The) mainstream media is starting to get interested but even when ABC and the Today Show does pieces that debunk the (halal) myths, it’s not believed and seen as unbalanced,” he said.
For Edwina, the answer was more straight forward. She argued Islamophobia and the anti-halal movement wont pressure her to change her lifestyle or beliefs.
“All I can do is keep being me,” she said.
First published by teleSUR English.