To the list of 2016’s surreal happenings, add one more: In Australia, a Styrofoam box filled with meat and french fries became a symbol of liberal values and tolerance.
Late in 2015, five friends jokingly created the Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society, a Facebook group for enthusiasts of a dish combining halal meat, fries, and cheese, layered with what they called a “Holy Trinity” of sauces—garlic, barbecue, and chili. A staple of Sydney’s kebab houses and food courts, it’s the sort of meal beloved by hungry office workers and drunken night owls alike.
In a spoof of the halal-certification process, members were encouraged to review Halal Snack Packs (HSPs) according to a strict set of categories—instead of determining whether the meat was truly halal (prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary tenets), they focused on less weighty questions. Were the meat pieces tender and the fries crispy? Was halal signage clearly displayed? And did the seller greet the customer warmly, as “brother” or “sister”? The group hailed any vendor that passed these tests as a place of “Jannah,” a nod to Islam’s concept of paradise. Customers foolish enough to deviate from the sanctified form—by eating kebabs smothered in ketchup, say, or, worse, lettuce—were ridiculed as “haram dingoes,” a made-up insult fusing the Arabic word for “forbidden” with classic Australian slang to mean “You, sir, are an idiot.”
In a matter of weeks, as the group’s membership swelled to thousands, people around the country were grading bewildered kebab vendors. A video on Facebook showed gleeful schoolboys ordering a pack several feet high. A “haram dingo” hat appeared for sale, featuring an embroidered dingo with a ketchup bottle in its mouth. Members began sharing pictures of birthday cakes made to look like HSPs.
At the same time, Australia’s federal election campaign was heating up, and xenophobia was surging. Against this backdrop, the Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society Facebook group—which as of this writing is more than 185,000 strong—began to function as a space for Muslims and non-Muslims to reaffirm their harmony, and to vent about their fears. Soon, the HSP found itself a political star. On July 2, One Nation, a vehemently anti-immigration party, won nearly 600,000 votes, and four seats in the Australian Senate. That night, Sam Dastyari, a young, liberal senator of Muslim heritage, playfully extended an olive branch to One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, inviting her to celebrate over a Halal Snack Pack. “Not happening, not interested in halal, thank you,” she replied, coldly. “Ninety-eight percent of Australians don’t want halal certification.”
While dubious, Hanson’s claim was not surprising: Throughout the campaign season, One Nation had claimed that the process for certifying halal food had set Australia down a slippery slope to Sharia law. In an address to the Senate that March, Dastyari had revealed how, while co-chairing a government inquiry into food certification, he’d shared an image of a halal butcher on social media, only to find himself on the receiving end of “a type of hate, vitriol, and Islamophobic fear-mongering that I had never experienced before—a real dark underbelly in the Australian community.” His faith in his fellow Australians was soon redeemed, however. “I did not realize there was a place where someone like me would belong,” he said. “This was before I knew about the Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society—a group of people who have come together to share the great Aussie tradition of halal meat in a box.”
Dastyari finished his speech with a rousing review of his favorite kebab house.