Syed Azmi Alhabshi has been labeled a heretic, a closet Christian, a Zionist spy or even a Shiite Muslim. His crime? Inviting other Muslims to touch a dog.
The subsequent death threats and online abuse sent him into hiding, fearing for his life. So when he recently met reporters, the 37-year-old social activist spoke from a prepared text, took no questions and left after five minutes.
“It was an educational program on respecting Allah’s creature that was being looked upon unfavorably and being abused by our community,” he said. “The program never encouraged dogs as pets.”
Nearly 1,000 attended the Oct. 19 event at a park in the western state of Selangor, aimed at helping Muslims overcome religious stigma and fear of canines, learn permissible ways to touch a dog and how to perform a cleansing ritual, known as “sertu” or “samak.”
The backlash was swift and serious after social media and news reports were flooded with images of Muslim participants — particularly women in hijabs — stroking and hugging their new four-legged friends at the I Want to Touch a Dog event.
Muslims in Malaysia largely subscribe to the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence, which views dogs as unclean. Dogs are not permitted to be reared as pets or handled, cuddled, petted or kissed. The only reason to touch a dog is if it needs help.
Following the uproar, the federal government issued a religious edict that deemed the touching of dogs went against mainstream Islamic doctrine.
Moderate Malaysians have gone online to push back against the hate speech directed at Syed Azmi, known for his community-based projects and charitable efforts.
One online group, “Malaysians for Malaysia,” started a campaign to raise support for the initiative: “Last weekend, Syed Azmi brought hundreds of Malaysians together to help address animal cruelty and overcome prejudice and fear towards dogs.
“Now, he is under attack by those who seek to perpetuate ignorance and irrationality. Let him know that Malaysians stand by him in support of this wonderful initiative. Stand up and speak out,” read the post, which has since garnered more than 2,400 shares.
The controversy, which has largely played out online, also prompted questions around a lack of freedom accorded to the country’s majority-Muslim population to explore other Islamic schools of thought. In Malaysia, all Malays are Muslim by law.
The New York Times noted that, in recent weeks, Muslim leaders in Malaysia have denounced Halloween as a “planned attack” on Islam and Oktoberfest parties as a public vice “the same as mass-promoted adultery.”
On Monday, Zaid Ibrahim, a prominent blogger and former cabinet minister, warned that as a result of this dog-petting edict, “Malays are now in danger of being classified as ‘deviant’ if they have slightly more liberal or progressive views about life and the world than those who call themselves ‘ulama’” (or the Muslim scholars).
On Facebook, the local Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam described Islam as a beautiful religion, stating that “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.”
It criticized the government as seeing “an edict on touching dogs (as) more important than an edict on joining ISIS’ jihad.”
On Facebook, cafe operator Zurinna Raja Adam stated that the Qur’an does not mention that dogs are unclean, but rather that it is subject to differing interpretation of Islamic scholars.
“But for years it has been hammered in us that is it prohibited (to touch dogs). But that’s the thing about religion, it is a never-ending learning process,” she said in an interview, calling the event one of the most “profound” experiences of her life.
And while not everyone agreed with Syed Azmi’s event, some used social media as an opportunity to explain their point of view.
Carl Shahrul posted on Facebook: “Animal cruelty has never been an issue to Muslims. We condemn cruelty to dogs and pigs the same way we condemn cruelty to cats or other God-created creatures … I feel ashamed that many Muslims have to go to that extent (of touching and hugging dogs for fun) just to show that our religion treats dogs equally.”
Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, former mufti for the northern state of Perlis, said the dog-touching event was too much too soon. Although Syed Azmi’s intentions may have been good, the activist underestimated the Malay reaction.
Syed Azmi now calls the entire episode a “learning process” and apologizes to those who were offended. He stressed that it was never his intention to “distort the faith, alter the laws of the religion, insult the ulamas or encourage liberalism.