Syed Azmi, the ‘Touch a Dog’ organiser who turned hero and villain in a week

Syed Azmi Alhabshi speaks at a press conference at Kelab Golf Seri Selangor, October 25, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Syed Azmi Alhabshi speaks at a press conference at Kelab Golf Seri Selangor, October 25, 2014. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 26 — In just one week, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, a budding Muslim activist, discovered what it was like to be thrown into the spotlight for daring to challenge the status quo in his country.

After last Sunday’s “I Want to Touch a Dog” event, a programme to offer Malay Muslims here the opportunity to pet canines, an animal that many in the community regard as culturally taboo, the youth found himself the topic of conversations all around.

Although many saluted him as a hero, a number of Muslim conservatives were quick to paint him as a villain, calling him a traitor to Islam and even accusing him of being a Christian and a follower of the deviant Shiah sect.

On his personal mobile phone and across all social media platforms, Syed Azmi was inundated over the past week with insults and painful criticisms, and even threats on his life.

According to his lawyer, in just a few hours on Friday, unread WhatsApp messages on Syed Azmi’s phone snowballed to nearly 2,000 messages.

As a result, the bespectacled young Malay was forced to seek police protection and even went into hiding, emerging only briefly yesterday to apologise for his alleged transgressions towards Muslims here.

“With a sincere heart, my intention to organise this programme is because of Allah SWT and not to memesongkan (distort) the faith, change religious laws, make fun of ulamas (religious scholars) or encourage liberalism,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.

Syed Azmi’s apology resonated loudly with his supporters online, many who urged critics to forgive the youth and shelve the issue.

On microblogging site Twitter, several users said they accept Syed Azmi’s apology. Others went a step further to highlight his string of past accomplishments, lamenting that his charitable works now appear to have been wiped out by one single controversial event that he had allegedly mishandled.

A Twitter user known as Shafiq Maharidan said yesterday: “Now that he apologized, we should accept it. I’m quite sure he learnt his lesson. He’s a good man after all.

“Well, judging from pictures of lots of charity and humanity events he’s been doing on his FB, I’m sure he’s a good man,” the same user tweeted, adding that he hoped Syed Azmi would become a better person and be more motivated to help others.

Yesterday, “I Want to Touch a Dog” event co-organiser Norhayati Ismail also defended Syed Azmi as a faithful Muslim, adding that they had collaborated on charity projects such as the collection of hundreds of boxes of food for the poor during Ramadhan and aiding those living on the streets.

On Syed Azmi’s Facebook account, a supporter posted a link containing a list of his past 16 awareness and charity projects, including “Project Make It Right” – a campaign where public transport users were encouraged to give up their seats for pregnant women.

Joining the public discussion, PAS MP Khalid Samad took to Twitter to ask if Syed Azmi’s accusers would now apologise for demonising the youth.

Khalid was alluding to rumours being circulated on social media accusing Syed Azmi of being a covert Christian or a Muslim from the banned Shiah sect – which the latter’s lawyer Syahredzan Johan said yesterday were defamatory claims.

Other Internet users voiced concern over how those who disagreed with Syed Azmi’s actions were resorting to threats to kill him.

In response to Syed Azmi’s apology, Twitter user Aina Kamilah said: “It’s ok Syed Azmi. We understand. But I don’t understand why some ppl give death threats to you and others involved.”

Another Twitter user, who went by the name of Dafinah Azman, said: ‏”don’t get why he was receiving any threats. he shouldn’t be apologising for doing something right.”

“What Syed Azmi did wasn’t “HARAM” nor “illegal”. Please tell me what he has to apologize for besides conflicting with “mainstream” opinion?” asked a Twitter user known as Rohan Javet Beg.

Others gave a mixed response, including Umno’s Dr Fathul Bari Mat Jahya who opposed the event but disagreed with the threats to Syed Azmi’s life.

“Walaupun sy x stuju dgn kmpen “touch a dog”,tp sy juga mngutuk skerasnya ugutan bunuh ke atas Syed Azmi.Kita perlu bijak mngurus Khilaf!” the religious cleric wrote. (Although I don’t agree with the ‘touch a dog’ campaign, but I also strongly condemn the death threat on Syed Azmi. We have to manage errors wisely!)

Facebook group “Anti Pakatan Rakyat”, whose page has 105.695 likes, sneered at Syed Azmi’s apology, saying in a post with a photograph of him during the press conference yesterday: “Minta maaf ke tu sambil tersenyum.. Macam tiada sesalan langsung..Malunya ada Melayu macam ni..” (Is that an apology while smiling..As if there is no regrets at all..Shameful to have a Malay like this).

Other Twitter users were fed up with the one-week-old controversy and said it was time to move on, with the holder of the Twitter account @brianlian saying: “People are still talking about the touch-a-dog thing? Malaysians sure love to dwell on petty issues.”

The “I Want to Touch a Dog” event at the Central Park in Bandar Utama, Selangor last Sunday drew nearly 200 volunteers and dog owners and gave Malay-Muslims the opportunity to pet canines, an animal that many in the community regard as culturally.

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