In NYT report, dog-petting row seen shining light on Malaysia's 'culture wars'

Datin Seri Paduka Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s longest-serving former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has defended Syed Azmi’s right to organise the dog-petting event. — file picture
Datin Seri Paduka Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s longest-serving former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has defended Syed Azmi’s right to organise the dog-petting event. — file picture

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 27 — The “I Want to Touch a Dog” event two Sundays ago is seen as the latest controversy underscoring Malaysia’s decades-old “culture wars” that have deepened fissures between the country’s Malay Muslim majority and its other racial and religious minorities, the New York Times (NYT) reported.

The report, by the NYT’s veteran Southeast Asian correspondent Thomas Fuller, noted that conservative Muslim groups here are pushing back against what they describe as “libidinous and ungodly Western influences in a country that has rapidly modernised and become more cosmopolitan”.

“The dispute over touching dogs has underlined the fault lines in what has increasingly become a country polarised between members of the Malay majority, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and ethnic Chinese, Indians and other minorities, who are typically Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist,” Fuller said in his report published yesterday.

The report noted Syed Azmi Alhabshi inadvertently drew flak when he organised the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in Selangor’s upper middle-class suburban neighbourhood of Bandar Utama, an event the pharmacist said was merely to offer Malay-Muslims here the opportunity to pet an animal that many in the community deem to be culturally taboo.

The NYT report also mentioned the latest uproar over local observances of popular international celebrations like Halloween and the Oktoberfest beer festival, which conservative Islamists here have denounced as attacks to weaken the faith of Muslims.

“The dog controversy joins the decades-old disputes over the availability of pork, the imbibing of alcohol and the pressure on Muslim women to wear conservative clothing,” wrote Fuller.

“The religious authorities in Malaysia have the power to crack down on practices they view as going against Islam, but Muslim law is selectively enforced and highly politicised.

“Many Malaysian Muslims own dogs, drink alcohol in public and have very westernised lifestyles,” he added.

On the heels of the dog controversy, many indignant Muslims came forward to condemn the attacks on Syed Azmi and the event, saying there was nothing un-Islamic about teaching the public about Muslim sensitivities when it comes to contact with dogs.

Other renowned Muslim figures, like Malay Mail Online’s resident columnist Dina Zaman, even shared their experiences growing up with “man’s best friend”.

In recent years, observers have noted the increasing creep of religion, in particular Islam, into Malaysian politics where it is frequently used as a yardstick to measure the credibility of its leaders.

Issues concerning the ease at which alcohol and pork, food forbidden to Muslim consumption, are consumed surface regularly usually ahead of polls, whether general or a by-election.  Leaders from the ruling coalition and the opposition, and both their stoutest supporters, frequently flash the religious card to justify their arguments in place of logic.

During campaigning for Teluk Intan earlier this year, rivals to Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud kicked up much fuss about the DAP candidate’s sudden appearance in a headscarf during her walkabouts around the Perak federal seat.

In the latest Oktoberfest controversy, critics had panned DAP MP Teresa Kok and several other opposition leaders who were photographed making merry at the beer festival earlier this month, questioning the morality of having elected representatives who drank alcohol.

Fuller in his report also hinted that the “culture wars” were not limited to Muslims and non-Muslims, but also drove a wedge between the conservative and liberal Muslims.

He pointed out that notable personalities like Datin Seri Paduka Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s longest-serving former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has defended Syed Azmi’s right to organise the dog-petting event.

“All we are getting these days is how to hate an ever-growing list of people and things,” Marina, also a leading liberal voice, wrote in a newspaper column published last week.

“How much energy are we to spend on hate? And how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?” she asked, rhetorically.