A Malaysian social activist has received death threats and torrents of online abuse for organizing a dog-familiarization event that religious conservatives claim insults Islam.
More than 1,000 people attended the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in the affluent Bandar Utama neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to learn about Islam’s views on canines and become familiar with the animals, which are a source of fear for many Malaysians.
But the event’s planner, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, has now been forced into hiding after hard-liners insisted he “should be stoned to death.”
Traditionally, dogs are considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam as they are thought of as dirty. But while conservatives advocate complete avoidance, moderates simply say Muslims should not touch the animal’s mucous membranes — such as the nose or mouth — which are considered especially impure. Even if that happens, they say, there is a special cleansing ritual that can be followed.
How to touch dogs in an Islamic way was the point of the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event. Although officially haram, many Malaysians own dogs for security, partly because of a worsening national crime wave. (Malaysia’s Selangor Islamic Religious Department, an influential clerical body, says that Muslims can own dogs as working animals, for security, hunting and other functions.)
Siti Sakinah, an NGO worker, attended the event with her children in order to “overcome their fear and to learn that dogs are also creatures created by Allah that need love and care,” she told the Malaysian Insider.
On Thursday, respected Malaysian human-rights campaigner Marina Mahathir wrote an op-ed in the Star newspaper defending Syed Azmi and slamming the “ignorance” of those orchestrating the hate campaign.
“I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down,” she wrote. “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.”
The dog debate in Malaysia is in fact nothing new. In colonial times, local people were forced to deal with an alien influx of dogs brought by British planters and officials, which in turn made the pets fashionable among many prominent Malays, including royals.
At this time, a vibrant and largely cordial discourse thrived between the kaum tua (old conservatives) and kaum muda (young moderates) about how to handle dogs. The issue was even documented in a book by celebrated American historian William R. Roff.
Today, however, this polarity is hugely politicized. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has brazenly fostered religious conservatism to win the ethnic Malay vote, and some of those attacking Syed Azmi say that he is part of a Zionist plot.
One Facebook user’s comment — as reported by the Malaysian Insider — illustrates the level of paranoia in the hard-line camp. The user said the dog-familiarization event was part of “a Jewish agenda to Christianise Muslim-Malaysians through subtle measures.”
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert based in Kuala Lumpur for the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, tells TIME that the conservatives “have been dominating the discourse and want to continue imposing their perspective.”
Marina argues that the storm has been cooked up by authorities attempting to maintain control. After all, she asks, “how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?”