PATERSON, N.J., June 22 (RNS)--In another sign of the growing prominence of Islam in America, New Jersey is poised to enact a law that would make it the first state with consumer protection laws for food prepared under the Muslim dietary laws, known as halal, a religiously mandated system of food practices akin to kosher regulations for Jews.

The legislation would once again put New Jersey, home to one of the nation's largest Muslim communities, at the forefront of efforts to have Islamic practices placed on equal footing in the civic arena with those of Judaism and Christianity.

Many New Jersey communities already include the Islamic symbols of the star and crescent in their holiday displays for winter, which is when the Muslim observances of Ramadan have taken place in recent years, and last year the Paterson school district mandated school closings for Ramadan, a first in the country.

Muslim leaders who lobbied for a New Jersey halal law to mirror the statute that protects kosher customers welcomed this latest move as another step in their emergence into the American mainstream.

"The community is very happy," said Yousef Kosht, the owner of Belmont Auto Body in North Haledon and an influential voice in the Passaic County Muslim community. He added, however, that the legislation would be "just a first step" because it deals only with food preparation, not the range of other products that could be unclean to traditional Muslims.

For example, many shampoos, cosmetics, and skin care products are made with pork by-products that render them haram, or unacceptable, the opposite of halal, which is Arabic for lawful or permissible. Many cheeses, cookies, and other foods can be haram as well if they are made with animal fats.

Kosht said he hopes the proposed law heralds a day when Muslims will be able to go to the supermarket and find an aisle of products "like for kosher, only for Muslims."

Kosht was one of the leading advocates of the legislation.

A spokesman for Gov. Christine Whitman last week remained noncommittal about the bill, but other state officials said the overwhelming consensus in the legislature, plus the fact that the bill mirrors existing state laws for kosher products, made it likely Whitman would eventually sign it.

Some estimates put the number of Muslims in New Jersey as high as 300,000, but whatever the figure, it is growing. In the United States, the estimates range from 3 million to 6 million Muslims.

But whatever its appeal to Muslims, the new state law will also place New Jersey in the center of a food sector that has sprung up so quickly that it remains almost wholly unregulated by government overseers.

"It's a Wild West out there as far as halal goes," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, one of the oldest of the growing number of Islamic advocacy groups. "This is a big issue that hasn't been addressed at all."

The incidence of fraud is growing, experts say, because halal products are becoming a profitable market as the demand grows. While there are no figures available, industry executives say halal products constitute a multimillion-dollar market that is drawing large-scale producers who now compete with the small butchers and food producers that previously dominated.

"The mom-and-pop butchers are not what we're worried about," said Hooper. "It's when you get the big industrial places that want to jump in and take advantage of the market that you can get certain problems."

"Maybe they won't have a Muslim doing the slaughtering, or maybe they're playing an audiotape of the blessing as the chickens go down the chute," he said.

Needless to say, that would not be halal.

Halal regulations are taken from the Qur'an, which bases them on the dietary laws set out in the Hebrew bible, which Muslims, like Christians, consider holy writ. In fact, kosher and halal laws are so similar that Jews occasionally shop at halal butchers and vice versa.

Muslim and Jewish laws contain identical bans against pork or eating carrion, and are nearly identical when it comes to the slaughter of animals, the centerpiece ritual of halal.

In both traditions, the animals to be slaughtered must be free of disease and contamination. They must not be allowed to see other animals being killed, in order to prevent terrorizing them, but neither can they be stunned or drugged before they are killed. The animals must also be what the rest of the world might call "organic"--raised with natural feed and without use of hormones.

"I can taste the difference. I'm a witness," said Hakimah Abdul-Karim, an Elizabeth woman who has been a practicing Muslim for nearly three decades.

When the animals are killed, it must be done by hand with a sharp knife cut across the throat to make the death as quick and merciful as possible. The slaughtering should be done by a Muslim who recites a prayer, "Bismallah, Allah Akbar," or "In the name of Allah, God is Great." The dead animal must then have the blood drained from it.

Because the halal slaughtering process is much more complex than the mechanized system often employed by big slaughterhouses, halal meats can be up to three times as expensive as meat butchered in the secular fashion.

That gap in costs has proved a tempting opportunity for some producers.

In 1997, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture hit a Virginia meat producer with a $15,000 fine for labeling ordinary meat as halal and selling it for inflated prices.

But such interventions are rare and deal only with price-gouging, not the selling of halal products that clearly do not comport with Qur'anic strictures.

"The halal market is growing, but so is the abuse of the term," said Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Los Angeles-based Minaret magazine, a national Islamic monthly.

In 1998, Minaret found that up to 65% of Islamic stores in Southern California were selling non-halal products as halal, and there

was no legal remedy for Muslim consumers. Abdullah said some of the fraud was due to ignorance and some to deception. Either way, he said, there was no way to enforce a uniform definition of halal.

That is where the New Jersey law breaks new ground. It not only offers protection from pricing fraud by providing for fines--up to $7,500 for an initial violation and $15,000 for subsequent violations--but it also requires producers to explain halal preparation and to promise to comport with those strictures at the risk of incurring fines if they fail to do so.

"This law clarifies the issue of what is what. If I say it is halal, I have to have my definition up there," said Muhammad Chaudry, head of the Chicago-based Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. "I wish all 50 states would pass laws like this."

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