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Canon was allegedly seized from the Kimo Resort off Sumatra island by local government officials as part of a drive to ensure tourist facilities are sharia compliant. Photo: Instagram

In Indonesia, a pet dog’s death goes viral, sparking debate on ‘halal’ tourism

  • #JusticeForCanon trended on social media after the animal died when Aceh province officials seized it in drive to ensure tourist facilities are sharia compliant
  • Indonesia hopes to boost economy by promoting Muslim-friendly travel, but incident highlights confusion over the meaning of ‘halal tourism’
The curious incident of a dog left to die in a crate designed for transporting cabbages has shocked Indonesia and sparked a discussion on “halal” tourism, as Southeast Asia’s largest economy seeks to attract more Muslim travellers.
Last month, a post that went viral on social media showed a black canine named Canon reportedly seized from the Kimo Resort off Sumatra island by local government officials.

The resort, which faces the Indian Ocean, is on an island that is part of Aceh, the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia that adheres to sharia or Islamic law. The seizure of the dog was allegedly part of a sweeping exercise to ensure that tourist facilities are sharia compliant, which in this case meant removing animals considered haram, or forbidden.

Aceh, a once restive province before separatists reached a peace deal with the government in 2005 months after it was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, has increasingly become a popular destination with Muslim travellers.

Muslim-friendly tourism is growing – it was projected to bring in over U$220 billion globally in 2020 before the pandemic hit – and Indonesia, where about 90 per cent of the 270 million population is Muslim, is seeking to tap this to boost its tourism industry, which before the pandemic contributed almost five per cent of the country’s GDP.

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Ten of its 34 provinces – East Nusa Tenggara, Aceh, the Riau Islands, West Sumatra, West Java, Jakarta, Central Java, Yogyakarta, East Java and South Sulawesi – have been identified as halal (“permitted”) tourism destinations, which means that they are sharia compliant and eschew haram products and services such as alcohol and gambling.

But the incident involving Canon appears to have highlighted the confusion around exactly what “halal tourism” means and who is responsible for enforcing any such halal stipulations in tourist areas.

The police chief in Aceh’s regency of Singkil, which oversees the tiny island of Baguk that the Kimo resort is on, confirmed the force was investigating an animal abuse complaint from a rights group.

“We are looking into whether the dog was tortured, and we understand its capture may have been linked to a halal tourism initiative,” Iin Maryudi Helman said.

“We are investigating exactly what halal tourism means and whether it means things like no pork sold in restaurants or whether it also means that no dogs are allowed in the area. This is likely covered by local regulations so we need to check exactly what they stipulate.”

Video footage appears to show officials from the Public Order Agency trying to capture Canon using a long wooden pole. Photo: Instagram

After Canon was captured by local authorities, he was reportedly placed in a discarded cabbage crate found at the resort and covered with a tarp. According to a video posted online, he suffocated before he could be collected by his owner Willy, who is also the owner of Kimo Resort.

The video also appeared to show officials from the Public Order Agency trying to capture Canon using a long wooden pole, prompting allegations of animal cruelty and causing the hashtag #JusticeForCanon to trend on Indonesian social media. A petition calling for a thorough investigation into the incident has gained over 130,000 signatures to date.

Willy, through one of his staff members, declined to comment to This Week in Asia, but issued a formal statement on October 26 in which he apologised “to the residents of Aceh Singkil for the ruckus that occurred”, and said that he would “not personally question what happened again.”

“Even if there are other parties who want to object and consider it a problem, that is not based on my personal wishes or instructions and I am not responsible,” he said.

Helman said as far as he was aware, it was not illegal for anyone to own a dog in ultraconservative Aceh.

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“We are looking into who is responsible for the removal of animals in such a case and whether it should be the Public Order Agency, the police or another government department. What is the standard operating procedure regarding the removal of pets? We are looking into it. We have to be extra careful in our handling of this,” he said.

Ramadhan Syahmedi Siregar, a lecturer in Islamic Law at the State Islamic University of North Sumatra, said some of the confusion was due to districts issuing their own local regulations under the wider umbrella of Indonesian national law. As such, any of these local laws, known as peraturan daerah or perda, related to halal tourism would only apply to the specific areas in which they were drafted rather than at a national level.

“We need to ask whether there are local regulations that have been formalised in Aceh regarding whether or not it is permissible to keep a dog or bring a dog there,” he said.

“We also need to clarify the meaning of halal tourism when it is used in local regulations. Does it mean that you are not allowed to bring certain animals [such as dogs] to halal tourism areas? What kind of sanctions are there if you do? All of this needs to be clarified first.”

For his part, Indonesia’s Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno called for calm during a video conference with the Indonesian Halal Tourism Association just a few days after the dog’s death, while also trying to clarify the aim of halal tourism.

“This is something that touches my heart. I want Mr Riyanto Sofyan [the Chairman of the Indonesian Halal Tourism Association] and his team to ensure that we educate and socialise people about halal tourism,” he said. “Halal tourism must not hurt anyone.”

Others said the issue need not be complicated.

According to Sebastian Hutabarat, a local activist and tourism entrepreneur who owns businesses in and around Lake Toba, one of the most famous tourism destinations in North Sumatra, halal tourism has existed for decades, albeit without that label.

“We have always respected each other’s differences. It is not a problem,” Hutabarat said.

While the area around Lake Toba is mostly populated by members of the Batak ethnic subgroup, who are predominantly Christian, Hutabarat said there had been Muslim and halal restaurants at Lake Toba ever since he was a child. “If I walk outside my house, I can find four Muslim restaurants in my area. Since the olden days there have always been Muslim restaurants on Batak land.”

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Hutabarat, who owns a local pizzeria named Pizza Andaliman, also questioned what qualified as a “Muslim” restaurant with halal standards.

“For example, we don’t serve pork in my restaurant but we do sell wine if people want to order it,” he said.

“At the same time, we are not Muslim so we obviously won’t always reach the standard required, but there are many places to eat here and they all have different kinds of food so there is something for everyone.

“We need to have a sense of perspective, it doesn’t have to be such a sensitive issue.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Dog’s fate fuels debate on halal tourism