Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
Mine is filled with fragrant flowers. Welcome.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A reflection on 'I Want To Touch A Dog' controversy

As soon as news about an event that targeted Muslims participants to touch and cuddle with dogs hit the mainstream pipeline, it sparked heated debates among the various strata of society, each with their own contention of what the event represent, should and should not be. The flame that 'Touch a Dog' caused erupted out of control and reached a point where its organiser, a social activist by the name of Syed Azmi Alhabshi claimed to receive "severe death threats" and islamic authorities such as MAIS was called to make a statement. According to media reports, Muslims were said to be "outraged" at such an event that provoked their longstanding tradition of abstinence from contact with dogs, though I beg to differ at the word use as the reports, in my view, were highly exaggerated. However the real war, in a spectacle that reminded me of one too many in the past couple of years, was fought online. To the unseeing eyes, it was utter chaos. But was the truth entirely what it seemed?

First, to understand the nature of reaction from the Muslims, one need to know that an overwhelming majority of Malaysian Muslims subscribe to the Shafie mazhab--which prescribed dogs as 'major filth' (Najis Mughalazzah) and puts it in the same category as swine. It would require those who made physical contact with the creature to wash the contact surface with water 7 times, with one part infused with soil. In particular, major filth in the mazhab is a level higher than the medium filth category that includes alcohol, human waste and blood. For those who might wonder what exactly is the fiqh concerning keeping dogs, I suggest you read this short explanation first (this) and (this). The tradition of keeping a safe distance from dogs has been ingrained for many generations for Muslims here although this does not make them develop hatred or destructive behaviour towards the animal.

Hence, the so called 'shock' reaction from average Muslims when pictures of the events were distributed was expected and not surprising. What made the Touch A Dog event controversial was the media coverage that created a false sense of panic among the Muslims, an absolute abomination of Syed Azmi and pinning the two against each other, with the organiser eventually triumphing as an underdog versus the society. The international media was also quick to pick up on the sensation surrounding 'Muslims outrage over touching dogs event' with emphasis on the 'death threats'. Try googling 'Touch A Dog' event and you will find stories from TIME, NY Times on top of the list, followed by articles from TMI or TMMO, while news piece from other media organisations who might not have hyped up the event as much are not as easily accessible.

In a matter of days, the unknown social activist from TTDI was hailed as a hero, 'revolutionary' Muslim who was trying to change 'society's negative perception and treatment of dogs'--though he might not been aware of it himself. The events that unfold were nothing short of comical at times especially with a special appearance from social media lawyer extraordinaire, Syahredzan Johan who took it upon himself to defend Syed Azmi from the various backlash. According to the lawyer, 'Syed Azmi has been drowning under thousands of death threats and other hateful messages within hours of holding the controversial event' though a recent news article revealed that only one report was lodged by Syed Azmi's father on online harassment his son received throughout the incident. This makes me want to revisit Syahredzan's statement on the actual meaning of 'drowning in death threats' and whether most of them were just hype.

MAIS, the state religious body that issued a permit for the event to be held claimed that it was misled into granting permission when the activities and objectives lined up by the organizers in their proposal were different from what actually took place. An ustaz invited to talk at the event also posted in his personal Facebook page of the confusion that was started by the organizers and his shock over what took place at the event. There is dishonesty in its implementation from the very on set and my question is 'why should there be a need for such tactics in the first place?'

As the issue prolonged, it was becoming more clear that the objective of the event and forced sensationalism were never really about the position of dogs in the Shafie Mazhab nor ending the so-called prejudice against the animal. Those who questioned or criticized the event was immediately labelled as a 'conservative' and 'narrow minded' while  a band of Muslim apologists started to appear (there's no harm to it, why should it be considered wrong? why should the event caused discomfort as touching dogs is only considered 'najis' and can be washed afterwards? I'm sure that the organizer only meant well...etc ). Some of these self-appointed spokesperson of Malaysian Muslims fail to realize that most of them have no actual training in addressing Fiqh issues in the first place. Maybe its time for the Muslims, community leaders and activists to start looking into the mirror and reflect whether we know the religion enough before trying to change Islam and engage the public. Personally, I think what the event managed to achieve was igniting confusion among Muslims on matters concerning their own Fiqh and for them to rethink and eventually accept certain lifestyle choices in spite of the ruling in the sacred law.  I can't help but think that it is a suspiciously familiar theme being brought up in this country these past few years and I don't know how long can the Muslims be pushed and pulled into similar situations in the future.