The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. More ...
By the time of my fieldwork in 2012, the major cities of Bishkek and Osh in Kyrgyzstan and Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan boasted a wide range of businesses that advertised as Shariah-compliant, or halal. These businesses ranged from Muslim daycare centers and halal food producers to wholesale and retail traders of goods targeted at pious Muslims. A large subset of these companies has been particularly concerned with the question of how to comply with and communicate this compliance with religious tenets, in the face of mass skepticism. After all, as policy makers and scholars widely recognize, this market generally lacks clear norms and standards for the “quality” of halal goods and services, as well as the sufficient means of monitoring and evaluating commodities labeled as halal.
In response to the uncertainties and information deficiencies in this field new to the Central Asian region, private halal certification agencies emerged starting from the early and mid-2000s. These agencies have quickly gained traction in the market. As of summer 2015, there were approximately 200 small to large businesses in Kyrgyzstan and 600 small to large businesses in Kazakhstan that received halal certification from their country’s respective agencies. Moreover, halal certifiers in Kazakhstan recently boasted that halal-compliant producers constituted 35 percent of the country’s G.N.P. in 2014.
This essay discusses private halal certification agencies, which have come to serve as a source of moral authority. The certificates that these agencies issue serve as “judgment devices” that allow entrepreneurs and consumers to transcend doubt about the quality and value of the products offered in the market. But what explains the authority of these agencies, which were able to turn pious aspirations into professional pursuit of analyzing and attesting to a business’s halal status? The argument here is that the authority of the certifiers is partly derived from transnational valuation circuits, through which local certification agencies draw on the authority of more established accreditors.
Emergence of Private Certifiers in Kyrgyzstan
The Halal Certification Agency (H.C.A.) in Kyrgyzstan was established as a branch of the Muftiate, officially known as the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan. Although the Muftiate’s history dates back to the Stalinist policies of the Second World War, initiatives such as halal-certification emerged only in the early 2000s. The director of the H.C.A., Myktybek Arstanbek or Myktybek aji, initially worked under the Muftiate with a small group of experts as a department of halal certification. Because of their work however, the Muftiate found itself under attack by local media and prominent public figures, who cautioned against turning a revered theological institution into a place for profane commercial activities. The department of halal certification, like all certifiers, charged fees for its services, which did not fit with the broader mission of the Muftiate in the eyes of critics.
As a result of this pressure, the certification department eventually branched out, becoming an independent agency, the H.C.A., in 2013. Myktybek aji gathered his own team of experts, who work alongside him promoting their work and recruiting companies. Long before becoming the head of a self-sustaining organization, Myktybek aji had been lectured on a wide array of issues related to Islam. A journalist by profession and already a widely known figure prior to his current work, he has become a well-connected figure within the community of practicing Muslims. He delivers lectures at madrasas, mosque gatherings, and other religious organizations. The agency still enjoys the official backing of the Muftiate, giving it a distinct advantage over competing certification agencies. Despite its relatively recent inception, the H.C.A. has outmaneuvered another third-party certification organization for example, the Technical Committee on Halal Standards, led by Kamchibek Omurzakov under the Islamic Center. Although the Islamic Center actually began certifying private businesses first, it was quickly outcompeted by the Muftiate-backed H.C.A. The latter gained traction due to its official backing, and over the past several years has issued certification to about two hundred businesses in Kyrgyzstan. These companies range from small and medium enterprises such as meat stalls, bakeries, and daycares, to larger cafes, guesthouses, and food producers that work for both local and regional markets (especially Kazakhstan and Russia).
The discourse of local halal certifiers emphasizes the technical side of certification. They strive to show that they derive their knowledge from canons in the field.
The discourse of local halal certifiers emphasizes the technical side of certification. They strive to show that they derive their knowledge from canons in the field. Their emphasis is on the technical, legalistic approach, which enhances their authority as experts and reinforces the conventional view of halal certification as something static and measureable. The officials of the halal certification agency speak of their work as helping business owners to understand and navigate what might feel like confusing sets of requirements.
This rhetoric is in part a response to common public accusations that certifiers have turned religion into business, and that they only purvey fraudulent businesses that take advantage of the pious aspirations of customers. Local media outlets have sparked public debates by uncovering stories of allegedly fraudulent companies that (falsely) claim to produce halal or otherwise genuinely Islamic products. In June 2012, for example, a company that specialized in producing halal sausages, “Abroi,” was accused of using pork and American-imported poultry in its production. In the fallout that ensued from this allegation, local communities of pious Muslims voiced their concerns that it was not easy for them to filter through the many companies that cluttered the market, some of which appeared to be duping their consumers. The matter was made worse by the fact that Abroi had been certified as halal by the Muftiate. The halal certification branch under the Muftiate that had issued the certificate was accused of “turning religion into business.”
These types of episodes demonstrate that the private halal certifiers were not just readily accepted by everyone as ultimate authorities in issues of piety and compliance to religious tenets. What explains their credibility among entrepreneurs who have gone through their certification then? Partly, as I demonstrate below, their authority is wielded through their connections to transnational network of certifiers. Moreover, the work of halal certifiers is not only beneficial for entrepreneurs who seek to address the problem of information deficiency, but it is also politically salient.
Halal Certifiers in Kazakhstan
Officials of the Halal Certification Agency in Kyrgyzstan defer to the Halal Industry Association (H.I.A.) in Kazakhstan, from whom they received accreditation. Kazakhstan was among the first post-Soviet countries to develop halal-compliant government standards in tourism and food production industries in 2007. The process was particularly supported by the upper echelon state officials, as the country prepared to host the 2011 Asian Winter Games with athletes from Iran, Malaysia, Qatar, and Singapore constituting the core group. Such steps—calculating the utility that can be gained from halal compliance, implementing relevant standards and streamlining national legislation accordingly—can all be seen as manifestations of the upper-echelon state officials and their vision that integration into the global Islamic economy is a forward-looking socio-economic project.
The H.I.A. enjoys considerable political clout. Support for the establishment of halal-certification in the country came directly from the chairman of the ruling party “Nurotan” (who also happens to be the nephew of Kazakhstan’s President). Speaking enthusiastically of the administrative support that his organization enjoys, Marat Sarsenbaev, the director of the Kazakhstani Halal Industry Association, highlighted that their authority cannot be disputed by religious jurists or mosques who might also want to start issuing halal certificates:
"Our organization was created ten years ago, and we have been registered with the Ministry of Justice. Thanks to our efforts there, our government standards involve halal standards as well, and we have the copyright to the standards related to production, storage and transportation of halal goods."
As evident from the quote, Marat Sarsenbaev draws clear boundaries between religious authorities and his organization, and positions the HIA as the legitimate governing body within the market. Beyond the six hundred companies certified by the H.I.A. within the country, producers from Russia, Belarus, and even Turkey have reportedly gone through their certification.
Figure 1: Valuation Circuits in Practice
Officials of the Halal Industry Association in Kazakhstan are part of the Eurasian Union of Standardization and Halal Certification, which was established as an alliance between Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus in 2012. As a result of this partnership with the religious authorities and independent halal certifiers in the post-Soviet region, H.I.A. representatives signed an agreement for the mutual recognition of certificates issued by the respective certification agencies in these three countries. This agreement enables halal producers from within this union to export their commodities into Kazakhstani markets without another round of certification, and similarly assists producers from Kazakhstan seeking to export their goods into Russian and Belarusian markets.
Halal Certifiers in Malaysia
The H.I.A. representatives defer to the authority of the International Halal Integrity Alliance (I.H.I. Alliance) based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from whom they, in turn, received their accreditation. The I.H.I. Alliance was formed as a result of a resolution passed at the World Halal Forum in May 2006, signed by over 30 countries interested in the development of the global halal industry chain. The I.H.I. Alliance was a response to the “absence of a credible reference center for information [that] has resulted in industries and consumers being bombarded with various interpretations of the meaning and application of halal, which often contradict each other.”
The growth of halal regulation in Malaysia has been primarily driven by the Malaysian state. Although other Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore and Indonesia, have also entered the race to become international centers for halal certification, Malaysia has by far outcompeted them. As Fischer argues, Malaysian leaders aimed to turn the country into a global hub of halal production, trade and regulation, and therefore “intensified regulation and scientification of halal.” Malaysia was able to export these standards abroad through world-wide halal forums, trade fairs, and the bureaucratization of procedures. As a result, Malaysia’s MS 1500 standards (covering the production, preparation, handling, and storage of halal food) and MS 2200 standards (covering consumer goods for cosmetic use and personal care) have become international benchmarks for halal certifiers.
The authority of certifiers is not solely based on their technical expertise and ability to enforce transparent and measurable standards on businesses who wish to be Shariah-compliant. Instead, local certifiers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have gained from being part of the transnational valuation circuit, where each level of certifiers depends on a higher level of accreditors when claiming expertise and credibility. This transnational circuit is the chain of moral authority in which the halal compliant status of goods is meant to become measurable, technical, and translatable to market indicators such as price for example.
Additionally, their status is further elevated by the political clout. Like in the case of Islamic Finance, upper-echelon state leaders in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have promoted halal actively. Adopting international standards of halal certification can present these states with a number of benefits. One of the clearest benefits is access to alternative sources of commerce and finance. The global profits of the halal food market reached an estimated US$700 billion in 2014, and that annual growth was estimated at close to 25 percent. This growth is not only limited to Muslim-majority countries, as such estimates highlight. Accordingly, most government reports and media coverage in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan depict halal through the lens of economic utility. By pointing to economic growth and prosperous countries like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and others, upper echelon state officials seek to validate their activities aimed at entering regional and international halal markets.
These valuation circuits play a crucial role in translating religious ideals into market values.
These valuation circuits play a crucial role in translating religious ideals into market values. In the case of halal certification in Central Asia, valuation circuits connect commodities of indeterminate quality in the local market to religious authorities in Malaysia, a country that for many pious Kyrgyz and Kazakh embodies the kind of moral future that they envision for their own country. In popular local consciousness, Malaysia represents a progressive Muslim country that achieved rapid economic growth in the recent past, while retaining true to national character and religious values, even promoting itself as a global leader in the Islamic economy (see Sloane-White forthcoming in this series). These ideals become projected onto Malaysian halal certifiers and accreditors, raising them to a higher level of moral authority.
As is evident from their rhetoric, recruitment strategies, tactics of educating entrepreneurs, and the broader public about halal standards (that I attend to in my broader research), the certifiers are taking part in the process of defying long held assumptions that religion has to be backward-looking. Hence, the emergence and expansion of private halal certifiers cannot be fully understood, without the recognition that they are part of the politically salient project of framing Islam and religious tenets as central to the new socio-economic developmental path.
 See more in Frans and Robin van Dalen, “Halal and the Moral Construction of Quality: How Religious Norms Turn a Mass Product into a Singularity,” in Jens Beckert and Christine Musselin, Eds., Constructing Quality: The Classification of Goods in Markets (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2013) 197–222.
 The term is borrowed from Lucien Karpik, Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 See more in Eren Murat Tasar, “Soviet & Muslim: The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia, 1943-1991.” Doctoral dissertation. Harvard University. 2010.
 Aji is a title in Kyrgyz for someone who has completed pilgrimage to Mecca or haj.
 “Mufti accused of illegal issuance of halal certificates,” June 1, 2012, Kloop Media (Kyrgyzsatn), accessed November 23, 2016, http://kloop.kg/blog/2012/06/01/muftiya-obvinili-v-nezakonnoj-vy-dache-halal-sertifikatov/.
 From left to right, the head Muftiy in Kyrgyzstan receiving accreditation from Marat Sarsenbaev, who represents the Halal Industry Association in Kazakhstan; the head Muftiy reciprocates with a gift; the HCA in Kyrgyzstan grants a certificate to an entrepreneur. Source: HCA website: http://halal.kg/galleries.
 Johan Fischer, “Manufacturing Halal in Malaysia,” Contemporary Islam 10 (2016): 40.
 Fischer, “Manufacturing Halal in Malaysia.”
 See, for example, “The Global Halal Food Market - Riding a wave of growth,” SpirE Journal 1 (2015): 2, accessed November 23, 2016, https://www.spireresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/SpirE-Journal-Q....