On Sunday, 19 October 2014, as I was scrolling through Facebook posts, one image struck me in a way no other has in a long time. I have several Malaysians on my friends list, so it is not unusual for me to see pictures of hijabed Malaysian women show up in my news feed.
But this one of a young Malay woman, her head covered with a yellow tudung, was completely different. It accompanied a Malaysian Insider report headlined ‘ ‘I want to touch a dog’ event an attempt to insult Malaysia’s clerics’. What was striking about the image was that it showed this woman actually holding a dog, a Pomeranian, its open mouth, tongue dangling, just inches from her smiling face.
The event was held in the middle class suburb of Bandar Utama just outside Kuala Lumpur, and drew hundreds of participants. It was aimed to break the taboo that many Malaysian Muslims have against dogs, remind participants that dogs are God’s creatures, too, and educate them about dog rescue and cleansing practices after handling a dog.
I instantly recognized the subversive value of the image. A Malay touching a dog? But we are told that Malays don’t touch dogs because they believe their religion, Islam,—in particular the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam that is practiced in Malaysia—tells them that dogs are unclean.
The ‘I want to touch a dog’ event was, to me, one of the most original campaigns to come out of Malaysia in recent years. Mass demonstrations and candlelight vigils happen everywhere. And some, like supporters of the Bersih or ‘clean elections’ movement—whose last mass rally was held in 2012 with an estimated turnout of tens of thousands of people—argue that these displays of collective discontent involving Malaysians of all ethnicities directly lead to an upset in voting results. Perhaps. While the Malay-dominated and conservative, Right-wing Barisan Nasional managed to retain power in the 2013 General Elections, that was the year it also had to endure one of its worst ever electoral performances.
I find the ‘touch a dog’ event more subversive because it shores up the fact that discord among Muslims exist (not that we need to be reminded), in an age where the main enemy for Malay Muslims seems to be the West or ‘other races’. The event was approved by the Islamic Religious Council of the State of Selangor, but opposed by other religious authorities in the country, a contradiction that immediately exposes that the clash is sometimes within Islam and not with the West. The conflict, however, is inevitably packaged in West-bashing rhetoric.
In the days following Sunday’s event, Malaysian Insider and other media reports focused on the insults and death threats that event organizer, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, was receiving all over social media. Overnight, the young man in his thirties was accused of being a closet Christian, part of a Zionist conspiracy to Christianize Muslim Malaysians or, simply, a “liberal”. Malaysia Insider reports a Facebook comment which went so far as to say Syed Azmi “should be stoned to death”. Another Facebook user suggested that in addition to taking action against Syed Azmi, Muslims should seek out the women who posed with dogs at the event, and pull off their headscarves to see if they were wearing crucifixes or had tattoos. Such vitriolic comments come from both men and women alike.
Many have come out to defend Syed Azmi and condemn such extremist reactions. Some feel that Muslims should avoid dogs, but killing those who touch, or advocate the touching of dogs, is wrong and un-Islamic. They don’t tell us, however, where this will to kill comes from in a country like Malaysia where Muslims are not under attack. Are they stricken by abject poverty, then? Has the New Economic Policy designed to help Malay development failed? One has to ask the question why Malaysia, one of the most affluent and developed Muslim nations in the world, has its share of IS sympathizers.
Other non-opposers to the ‘touch a dog’ event like a former mufti of the state of Perlis and Selangor’s Islamic religious council, claim that dogs are not forbidden in Islam and Muslims may keep guard dogs for security, especially since home burglaries are on the rise in Malaysia. Not all approve of Muslims hugging dogs, however. Their idea, it appears, is that you treat your guard dog well and with kindness, just as you would treat your human guard well. But both are not to be hugged by the mistress of the house. Religious leaders recommend that should Muslims come into contact with a dog, they are obliged to carry out the cleansing ritual which traditionally involves washing with a combination of water and soil, and then rinsing with water.
The ‘touch a dog’ event is not the first controversy involving Muslims and dogs in Malaysia. In August 2013, dog trainer Maznah Mohd Yusuf, 38, was arrested following a wave of protests in reaction to videos uploaded on Youtube showing her washing her dogs’ paws and legs after she had taken them out for a walk.
To counter what many are calling “ignorance” and “stupidity” on the part of those shunning the ‘touch a dog’ campaign, many Facebook users are either telling stories about Malaysian Muslims from politicians to members of the royalty to the ordinary citizen, who own dogs. Or else they are posting pictures of other Muslims around the world touching dogs, from Kuwaiti clerics to Turks in Istanbul’s Taksim square and Gulf Arabs at greyhound races. But cynicism runs high. In a comment, a certain Synthia Leng states: “Nice try but I don’t think it will change their mind. Someone pointed out in a post that lots of Arabs touch dogs, but the anti-touch dog people told the person not to compare Arabs and the Malays. I wonder why…don’t they worship the sane [sic] god?? One can never get through facts with such people. They believe what they want to believe. …without using their brain.”
And perhaps this is the crux of the problem. Not Islam’s obsession with the West but Islam’s relationship to common sense and science.
Malaysia’s most well-known sociologist, Syed Hussein Alatas, owned two dogs in his lifetime. He loved them, and touched them. With regard to cleansing practices, he said to me in a private conversation in the 1980s that soap and water were sufficient, and a safer improvement over sand which was a desert practice. Though if Muslims wanted to stick to tradition, they could continue to cleanse themselves with sand, he said. He also said that cats, a popular pet among Muslims, “are actually dirtier than dogs because they catch rats which may have wandered out of the sewers and are thus disease carriers. But cats know how to keep themselves clean and Muslims know how to keep themselves clean. No Muslim would rush to wash immediately after touching a cat, let alone wash with sand.”
It is, of course, impossible to slap a death threat on a dead man.
Almost a week after the dog touching event took place, Syed Azmi Alhabshi came out with an apology. In a report carried by Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency, he stated that the programme “had certain weaknesses” and was not meant “to promote liberalism.”
Controversy and anger around the ‘I want to touch a dog’ event may die down. But other unresolved issues of Islam’s relationship to science and modernity remain very much alive.
Masturah Alatas is a at the University of Macerata.