The dog delusion

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 26 — A week has passed since the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event, which predictably turned controversial as it involved the second most taboo animal among Muslims: man’s best friend the dog — which comes only second to the pig. The conversation on the issue, however, has yet to die down.

An interesting thread to follow would be the many questions asking why the organiser Syed Azmi Alhabshi did the event, despite his clear explanation that it was to dispel negative stigma surrounding dogs.

The conservatives have since accused Syed Azmi and the organisers of deliberately provoking the Malay-Muslim community with the event, which they say has no place in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Facebook page “Rakyat Malaysia Tolak Konsert Liar” (Malaysians Against Wild Concerts) — recently in the spotlight for sparking the campaign against the annual Oktoberfest — for example, lamented that there have been too many “weird occurrences” happening lately, singling out “beer festival, nude festival, and dog festival.”

What happened next would delight lecturers teaching logic who are looking for examples of “slippery slope” arguments: some Muslim leaders freaked out over what will come next. Pork-eating festivals? Sex festivals promoting safe sex?

A group of Muslim women get acquainted with a dog at the ‘I want to touch a dog’ event at 1Utama’s central park on Sunday. — Picture by Choo Choy May
A group of Muslim women get acquainted with a dog at the ‘I want to touch a dog’ event at 1Utama’s central park on Sunday. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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As if to prove them right, just a few days afterwards women rights’ group Awam announced its fundraising, part of it daring men to don high heels as a symbolic gesture of solidarity in the battle to end violence against women. Surely that was a hidden agenda to get men to cross-dress?

Meanwhile, in an article published by Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma), lawyer Muhammad Akmal Abdul Ghani claimed that the events were meant to test the boundaries and sensitivities of Muslims nationwide, which will pave the way to more challenging events in the future.

Furthermore, by the logic of the Selangor chapter of Malay rights group Perkasa, all these vices were to blame for the recent spate of tornadoes in the country.

An array of wild allegations ware thrown Syed Azmi’s way featuring the familiar words “Jews”, “DAP” and “liberals”; coupled with the usual death threats some Muslims like to use when faced with arguments too huge for their brains to compute.

My favourite malicious slander is the one alleging Syed Azmi is actually a Christian priest, masquerading as a Muslim ustaz (religious teacher) for a year, in order to in the end, spread Shiah teachings. You have to appreciate the thought being put into the conspiracy — my outmost respect goes to whichever priest who takes that route in order to mislead a Muslim back into Islam.

It amuses me to no end that the quarter of Muslims who urged the public to not jump to conclusions when an alleged sextape of popular preacher Azhar Idrus leaked a few days later, had no problem happily leaping to conclusions when it came to Syed Azmi.

A more interesting discussion however happens on the other side of the fence, as explained to me by a friend, who quoted Abu Dhabi-based Sunni scholar Musa Furber calling the event a “public relations exercise. “

According to her, by portraying that “not all Muslims hate dogs”, the event inevitably became a political exercise to reassure the public against negative portrayals of Muslims. In turn, this panders to an orientalist caricature of Muslims, which does not represent the masses of the adherents.

She mentioned that the media is at fault too for highlighting it as a “Moderate Muslim Speaks Sense” event and an anomaly among Muslims, subsequently landing Syed Azmi in hot water.

It was certainly interesting, because the media did highlight the event as an anomaly, albeit with different takes. While the English medium press praised the event for a rare show promoting kindness to animals, Malay-medium newspapers have demonised it instead for reasons ranging from “inviting slander towards Muslims” to “insulting Islam.”

In addition, two days after the event, Malay daily Sinar Harian even carried a front page boldly urging participants to “repent”, before dedicating four pages of stories against the event.

There have been several commentaries noting that both backlash and support towards the event signal a shift towards Malaysian Muslims’ relationship with the religious authorities, and how this has opened up discourse.

Writer Dina Zaman pointed out that Muslims are now creating their own boundaries, and are discovering their faith by charting their own course rather than the one forced upon them by the authorities.

In addition, Dina noted that it has opened a Pandora’s Box on the schools of jurisprudence. Why should Malaysian Muslims strictly follow the Shafi’i school mandated by Putrajaya, when a Muslim’s allegiance lie only with the holy texts Quran and Sunnah?

By the nature of the strict Islamic teachings, some Malays have inevitably self-segregated themselves from non-Muslims. Some are too afraid of dogs, some are too afraid of non-halal restaurants, some are too afraid to mingle.

These people stick only to the Muslim community, further alienating themselves as Muslims.

If anything, the event goes to show that Muslims can break free of the silos that they have created for themselves. And still be Muslims.

Live a little. Go pet that dog if you cannot resist it. Then wash your hands properly afterwards. Does that make you a bad Muslim? Only God knows.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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