Many Americans probably do not consider Kentucky Fried Chicken to be a defining cultural symbol of red-white-and-blue. But in the Islamic world, Col. Sanders’s chicken often gets confused for being the face of America, and that can spell trouble.
Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the most recognized Western food chains in many Arab and Asian countries, and KFC restaurants have been stormed, bombed and burned down in fits of anti-American rage or terrorism over the past decade. The chain also has become fodder for intense domestic debates over encroachment of non-traditional values — even though a KFC is not always a real KFC.
The latest example of the challenges Kentucky Fried Chicken faces abroad occurred Monday in Iran. After weeks of hype, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken was slated to open in the Iranian capital, Tehran. But 24 hours after it opened, Iranian police raided the store and ordered that it close.
Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency initially reported that the store was shuttered because its decor resembled the American flag. The news agency also cited concerns that the restaurant was another sign that the United States is trying to gain “cultural influence” over Iran. As noted by Foreign Policy magazine, American brands are still banned in Iran under orders from the supreme leader.
But knockoff restaurant chains are common in Iran. And the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tehran, it turns out, actually operates under the name Halal KFC, a reference to Islamic dietary rules.
In an interview with the BBC, the manager of the restaurant said the Turkish-based KFC Halal brand is a “rival” to the American chain.
The manager predicted the store would quickly reopen. But a spokeswoman for KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, told several media outlets it may file “legal action” to keep the restaurant closed.
"We are shocked with the news that an illegitimate KFC outlet has opened in Tehran, Iran," Yum's Laurie Schalow told Mashable. "No franchise rights have been granted to any party in Iran. We are in contact with local authorities and external advisers and will be filing a legal action against any company or individuals claiming to have rights to open KFC."
Whatever the case, the controversy over the Iran store is just the latest example of how something as simple as serving chicken can get entangled into the anger and threats that some Westerners face while doing business in the Middle East or South Asia.
In many of countries, customers flock to KFC stores to taste what for them is a slightly more exotic version of fried chicken than is often offered in local kitchens. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, KFC became a regular target of Islamist extremists.
The first such attack occurred in 2003 when an al-Qaeda-linked group bombed a franchise at Indonesia’s main airport. Two years later, there were repeated attacks on KFC restaurants in Pakistan in response to Pakistan’s support for the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.
In one attack, a powerful car bomb outside a KFC restaurant in Karachi killed three people and wounded two dozen. A few weeks later, six people were killed when a mob burned down another KFC branch in that port city.
Often, however, public sentiment about KFC stops well short of violence. During the Egyptian Arab Spring uprising in 2011, for example, protesters vented their frustration about U.S. policy in the region by simply chanting “No Kentucky! No Kentucky! in Tahrir Square.
Yet KFC's bright red decor means it also becomes a visible target when protests turn violent.
In 2012, a KFC restaurant in Lebanon was ransacked and burned following the release of a controversial YouTube movie that many Muslims considered offensive. In response, Yum Brands temporarily closed all 21 KFC restaurants in Pakistan.
Earlier this year, at least four KFC branches in Egypt were firebombed by young, anti-capitalist supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Telegraph reported in March. One of those attacks resulted in the death of a KFC counter clerk who was burned alive by a mob.
The violence prompted Foreign Policy magazine to run a story under the headline “Allah Versus KFC.”
The magazine noted that the insurrection was being driven by followers of Shahid King Bolsen, an American anti-capitalist with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. But unlike past terrorist attacks, the Bolsen-inspired violence was viewed as a tool from which young Egyptians could extract concessions from Egypt’s ruling government by weakening investor confidence in the government.
“He presents his model as one that is applicable not only to Egypt but also to the Islamist struggle elsewhere,” Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros wrote in Foreign Policy. And when it comes to taking a stand against the West, KFC is about as easy a target as anywhere.
In the 1950s, KFC became one of the first U.S.-based fast-food chains to expand internationally. Now, after decades of explosive growth, KFC has more than 19,000 restaurants overseas and ranks behind only McDonald's in global sales, according to Yum Brands.
And that doesn’t even include the knockoffs.