A proverbial storm has erupted in Indonesia over a foodie influencer enjoying a humble bowl of meatball soup with non-halal crackers. Calmer heads should have prevailed.
Managing religious sensitivity in Indonesia is a tricky endeavour. But the level of complexity increases when one is trying to maintain a halal brand in a non-Muslim majority area with a history of Islamic terrorism. This was demonstrated in Bali recently, when a storm erupted over video footage of a humble bowl of halal meatball soup served with non-halal elements. The object lesson here: an unbalanced approach to such issues would easily offend non-Muslim locals, and may be seen by Muslims outsiders as too little or even too much. In such cases, religious tolerance and sensitivity are critical.
On 18 July, Jovi Adhiguna, a foodie influencer, posted a short Instagram video showing how he was enjoying meat-ball soup at the A Fung restaurant in Bali by adding pork crackers. The A Fung outlet is a halal-certified restaurant chain known for its meatball soup. It is unclear whether Jovi, a non-Muslim, was doing it to elicit a response from the public, or whether he thought that A Fung is a Chinese restaurant selling non-halal food. Whatever his reasons were, the video provoked some netizens, and tested Indonesia’s religious pluralism once again.
The TikTok account @pawpaw.kids uploaded Jovi’s short video went viral and was re-uploaded by other TikTok accounts and YouTube channels. Many netizens criticised the video, with @pawpaw.kids appealing for “non-Muslims not to bring non-halal food to a halal restaurant to assure Muslims’ peace of mind.”
Jovi publicly apologised to all Muslims and the A Fung management. Afraid of losing its Muslim patrons, the management team broke the bowls and cutlery that Jovi used. This was also circulated on social media, likely to be A Fung’s symbolic gesture of its disapproval of Jovi, and its commitment to cater to Muslims’ halal consumption needs. It aimed to assure Muslims that none of the bowls or cutlery used in the restaurant had been contaminated by pork, and that the restaurant remains safe for Muslims.
Unfortunately, breaking the bowl at the restaurant’s premises, which is located in the predominantly Hindu island of Bali, triggered a counter-backlash from the locals. Councilor Arya Wedakarna lambasted the action, arguing that the action insulted Hindu communities on the island, as many Hindu Balinese eat pork and work as pig farmers. He demanded that the A Fung restaurant in Bali serve pork, besides serving halal food, to show that the restaurant is fair to Bali’s pig farmers. He threatened to shut down the restaurant if it failed to meet his demands. Even the prominent Muslim cleric from West Java, Buya Yahya, felt that A Fung’s reaction went overboard. Instead of breaking the bowl, the restaurant could have simply cleansed it with water and soap. This, he said, would have been a non-emotive reaction of Muslims and show the beauty of Islam.
Religious sensitivities have become a delicate issue in Indonesia even in the most remote areas, as more people are connected to the Internet. The Internet has enabled them to air their views freely in public. In the past, such comments took a longer time to reach the public sphere, but today they spread in seconds. One irresponsible click on social media can escalate a controversy as shown by Jovi’s and A Fung restaurant’s reactions. People need to learn from past experiences where abuse of religious sensitivities can result in destructive riots, such as the one that occurred in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra province, in July 2016. Anti-Chinese-Indonesian social media posts provoked Muslim residents to vandalise and destroy three Buddhist and six Confucian places of worship. This was due to a heated argument between a Chinese-Indonesian woman and Muslim residents over the volume of a mosque’s adhan or call to prayer. In the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, the social and political situation is fertile ground for groups to exploit religious sensitivities for political gains.
The A Fung controversy serves as a lesson not only for Jovi and the A Fung management team but also for religious believers in Indonesia: people need to be more sensitive toward various religious tenets and practices in a religiously diverse country.
Indonesia needs to invest in multicultural training for corporations to avoid similar controversies from reoccurring. Such incidents could be detrimental to their business. The training can enhance their employees’ religious sensitivities and develop better understanding of other faiths and practices. But more importantly, government and religious figures need to work together to promote rationality and tolerance. The government can provide more funding to encourage religious leaders, social media influencers and school teachers to promote rationality and tolerance. This can be done through seminars, social media campaigns and school curricula.
Religious figures, in particular, can appeal to the common people to be more rational as they have more religious legitimacy than other social figures such as heads of neighbourhoods or government officials. The campaigns should convey the message that religious believers do not need to overreact should they come across expressions in the public sphere that irritate or provoke their religious sentiment. In short, they should be calm lest they lose public respect. Moreover, making a mountain out of a molehill over an issue can also tarnish the image of their religion and reduce it to promoting irrationalism. Lastly, the government can help by providing school curriculum that promotes tolerance and rational minds. While promoting tolerance is going to be a long shot, it is worth pursuing.
The A Fung controversy serves as a lesson not only for Jovi and the A Fung management team but also for religious believers in Indonesia: people need to be more sensitive toward various religious tenets and practices in a religiously diverse country. If they are not able to manage this religious sensitivity, it will not only damage the long-standing religious tolerance in Indonesia, but also negatively impact Indonesia’s economic vitality.
Wahyudi Akmaliyah is a Ph.D. candidate in Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore and a Researcher at BRIN (National Research and Innovation Agency), Jakarta.
A'an Suryana was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.