A small row has broken out in Malaysia over the proper name for an imported American snack
There are many things that trouble me. What if Donald Trump is elected and presses the big red button? What if there’s another financial crash and I can’t pay the household bills? And sometimes even whether my Netflix subscription has renewed so I can watch the latest must-see box set. What doesn’t worry me is whether hot dogs actually have dog meat in them.
Luckily, this oversight on my part may well be taken care of by Jakim, the Malaysian government authority responsible for halal certification. They have been in discussions with an American food chain about what they can call their fast food sausage-in-a-bun when it is served in local Malaysian restaurants.
Jakim says it has received complaints from Muslim tourists who have said that they find it confusing to have the word "dog" as a food type, next to the word "halal".
To consume dog meat, according to Islamic dietary laws, is forbidden, haram, the opposite of halal.
Their proposal is that the offending hot dog be renamed "pretzel sausages". (Jakim more recently said the chain’s application failed because of incomplete paperwork.)
Just to be clear, even though I’m travelling in Malaysia this week, I’m not one of those tourists.
Jakim has previously ruled that root beer cannot be called beer for similar reasons to the hot dog/that-isn’t-a-dog issue, which is that something that is not inherently permitted should not be connected to something halal certified for fear both of confusion as well as normalisation.
In 2014, Malaysia’s high court backed a ban on the use of the word "Allah" in Bibles, which Christians argued they had a right to use because using the word Allah for God was quite normal historically for Malay-speaking Christians. But the court ruled that Muslims reading the Bible and seeing the word might get confused.
"Hot dog is hot dog. Even in Malay it’s called hot dog – it’s been around for so many years. I’m a Muslim and I’m not offended," said the Malaysian tourism and culture minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.
The daughter of the ex-Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamed was sharper in her response. "Oh we poor easily confused Muslims who have never heard of hot dogs before and who will have no choice but to buy one if one was on the menu," she said.
While we might chuckle about the hot dog controversy, it is an important and insightful moment about the variation in attitudes among Muslims, and how they see their faith and how it relates to the world around them.
The most obvious point is that Muslims are not of one singular opinion. There is variation and even significant disagreement. The two hot dog camps also demonstrate a divergence in trajectory.
For some, protection of faith in its most literal form has become increasingly important, as noted by the rise in complaints about dogs, beer and ownership of words signifying God.
For others – notably younger Muslims who see values and meaning as crucial, rather than the labels themselves – they are baffled. For them, worldly and thinking primarily about how to connect with those around them through shared experiences and commonalities, rather than separating from those around them, such rulings seem ridiculous.
For them, the idea that they cannot see beyond the literal – whether hot dogs are made of dog – or that asserting ownership of certain religious words, rather than promoting respect and partnership through shared concepts – do not fit into their world view.
When they ridicule and mock such views it is because they simply cannot fathom the thinking behind them.
They see the role of certification to be about laying the foundations for leading a more conscious and spiritual life rather than an end in itself. Whether they feel a halal hot dog – whatever it’s called – can help them do that – now that’s an entirely different question.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf