One of the organizers of a community event called “I Want to Touch a Dog” in Malaysia was forced into hiding due to threats on his life. Conservatives have threatened to stone him to death.
Syed Azmi Alhabshi, a 30-year old pharmacist and community activist who organized the event along others, said in a press conference that the event was met to educate and familiarize the public anout dogs. Malaysians are known to be afraid of dogs and, in some cases, cruel to them.
More than 1,000 people attended the event held in a park in an affluent neighborhood on the edge of Kuala Lumpur.
"During the event, the participants were also given a detailed explanation on how to handle dogs. Sertu [the Islamic way of purifying oneself after being in contact with dogs] was also taught to the participants," Syed Azmi said in a prepared statement.
Even though the event was organized by 10-15 people, Syed Azmi has become the public face of the event and has suffered its backlash. At the press conference, he apologized for the trouble the event had caused and for offending any sensibilities. He denied that he had organized the event to challenge the conservative establishment and promote liberalism.
In addition, he specifically pointed out that he had consulted the Selangor Mufti Department (authorities on Islamic law) on how a Muslim is permitted to handle dogs.
After a five-minute appearance, Syed Azmi left the press conference. "We apologize for that. He had received death threats," said his lawyer Syahredzan Johan, who was present. "Some have threatened to break his bones and others said they would kill him if they see him on the street."
Norhayati Ismail, a co-organizer of the event, said that the purpose of the event was not to touch dogs for fun (even those participants enjoyed the petting). “"We had even told them that in our mazhab shafie (the shafie school of Islamic thought), it was haram (forbidden) for Muslims to simply touch dogs," she said.
Different schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence have various rulings concerning dogs. While dogs, in general, are considered impure or unclean animals and thus haram, some authorities say that a Muslim should only avoid touching the mucous membranes (nose, mouth, etc.) of the animal. Only in that case is a special ritual cleansing necessary.
The Selangor Islamic Religious Department rules that Muslims in Malaysia are allowed to own dogs for work, security, hunting and other functional reasons.
Perak Mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria dismissed Syed Azmi’s apology, saying it was insincere. “It’s just a game. His face showed no regret, but he smiled, so this is a game.”
“We take offense at his actions because we are Muslims, but God is angry because he made a mockery of God’s Law, so he should repent and never do it again,” the mufti was quoted as saying in the Utusan Malaysia report.
The "I Want to Touch a Dog" event created a virtual storm on social media. Syed Azmi received more than 3,000 messages on his phone after the event, many of them threatening.
But many Malaysians come out in favor of the event, posting positive comments on social media and news outlets.
"This is so heartwarming to see a good change in my home country," said one comment on Facebook.
A prominent human rights activist and daughter of a former prime minister in Malaysia, Marina Mahathir decried the “ignorance” of those who have instigated the hate campaign against Syed Azmi.
“I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable, but then the world has turned upside down,” Mahathir wrote in The Star. “Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly.”
A local Muslim women’s rights group “Sisters in Islam” wrote on their Facebook page, “touching a dog is not haram (prohibited). The dog is a creature of Allah. Quick condemnation of views with which we disagree is a sign of a narrow mind, of an uncultivated intelligence.”
Maszlee Malik, described as a respected lecturer at International Islamic University Malaysia, said the reaction to the event was not about Islamic doctrine. “Having such a big event was perceived by [hardliners] as a challenge of the status quo and a form of disrespect to the inherited norms of the majority.”
However, he said, the event was representative of young, urban Muslims “who would love to see a more inclusive and harmonious Islam that doesn’t compromise the fundamentals of the religion.”
However, Islamic authorities viewed the event as an insult to Islam and its clerics. "Don't try to create a culture that is opposite to Islam,” Muslim leader Nooh Gadut was quoted as saying.
Although Syed Azmi has filed reports of the threats he has received online as per section 233 of the Malaysian penal code that forbids any online activity that threatens or harasses another person, the Communication and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek said the case was out of his purview.
However, Eric Paulsen, a lawyer who is a part of the Lawyers for Liberty group, said the minister’s “excuse is quite incredible as we have seen many instances of [the ministry] taking action over offensive Facebook or Twitter postings, particularly on Islam and royalty.”