KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When he organized a get-together for dog lovers and their canine-averse neighbors, Syed Azmi Alhabshi thought he was doing a public service.
But after hundreds of people showed up to the event, billed as “I Want to Touch a Dog” on Facebook, and when pictures started circulating on the Internet of Muslim women in head scarves happily hugging dogs, Mr. Syed Azmi became an unwitting protagonist in the latest chapter of Malaysia’s culture wars.
In the week since the event, Mr. Syed Azmi, a pharmacist, has received more than 3,000 messages on his phone, many of them hateful and a dozen of them threatening physical harm. The police advised him to stay at home.
Malaysia’s Muslim leaders, who cite Islamic scriptures stating that dogs are unclean, lashed out at him in the news media. “I feel the anger, and it is real,” he said in an interview.
Over the past two 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.”
The culture wars have waxed and waned in multicultural Malaysia in recent years as conservative Muslim groups have pushed back against what they describe as libidinous and ungodly Western influences in a country that has rapidly modernized and become more cosmopolitan.
The dispute over touching dogs has underlined the fault lines in what has increasingly become a country polarized between members of the Malay majority, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and ethnic Chinese, Indians and other minorities, who are typically Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist.
The dog controversy joins the decades-old disputes over the availability of pork, the imbibing of alcohol and the pressure on Muslim women to wear conservative clothing.
Although many Muslims in other countries do not view touching dogs as forbidden, conservative Islamic groups here say the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence that they follow views dogs as unclean and requires the faithful to undergo a ritualistic wash if they come into contact with canines.
The Malaysian authorities described the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event as an offense to Islam. Othman Mustapha, the director general of the federal Islamic Development Department, which has the official mission of protecting the “purity of faith,” said the event was a challenge to the authority of religious leaders.
The religious authorities in Malaysia have the power to crack down on practices they view as going against Islam, but Muslim law is selectively enforced and highly politicized. Many Malaysian Muslims own dogs, drink alcohol in public and have very westernized lifestyles.
Criticism of the dog event has led to a backlash by a small but vocal group of moderate Muslims in the country who view the strictures of the religious authorities as oppressive.
“All we are getting these days is how to hate an ever-growing list of people and things,” Marina Mahathir, the daughter of a former prime minister and a leading liberal voice, wrote in a newspaper column published last week. “How much energy are we to spend on hate? And how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?”
Mr. Syed Azmi, the pharmacist, said he thought he had his bases covered. Before the event, he contacted and received acknowledgment from the state religious authorities.
He also invited an Islamic scholar who showed Muslims how to conduct the ritual washing after they had touched the dogs.
“I expected it to be in the news, but not to the point where people would get so angry,” said Mr. Syed Azmi, who is Muslim.
A fatwa from Malaysia’s religious affairs ministry telling Muslims there they cannot celebrate Halloween is not the only troubling development to have hit the Southeast Asian country recently.
As The Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway writes, a Muslim religious edict denouncing Halloween parties in Malaysia might not seem like a significant move. Plenty of Christian groups also view the commerce and frivolity that accompany the celebration as vaguely pagan and a little bit off-color.
But the role of Islam in public life is becoming a combustible issue here, driven on in part by the deepening conflict between government supporters and backers of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose trial on sodomy charges at the country’s highest court is gaining momentum.
Muslim leaders recently criticized a dog-petting event in Kuala Lumpur, accusing the organizer, himself a Muslim, as spreading un-Islamic practices. Dogs are considered unclean in some interpretations of Islam. Oktoberfest beer celebrations, while aimed at Malaysia’s large ethnic-Chinese and Indian populations, have also been criticized. The edict, or fatwa, against Halloween, posted on the “e-fatwa” website of the religious affairs ministry, warned that the day “cannot be celebrated by Muslims.
sourced: Wall Street Journal
Racial politics masquerading behind Islamist front, WSJ says
US daily Wall Street Journal reported that a fatwa banning Muslims from ‘celebrating’ Halloween is indicative of a growing use in Islamist rhetoric to repackage racial politics.KUALALUMPUR, Oct 31 — A fatwa banning Muslims from “celebrating” Halloween is indicative of a growing use in Islamist rhetoric to repackage the racial politics that has blighted the nation for decades, the Wall Street Journal reported today.Pointing to the National Fatwa Council’s edict as well as recent controversies stemming ostensibly from offended Muslim sensitivities, such as the Oktoberfest furore and the “I Want To Touch A Dog” row, the US daily asserted that the growing clash between religious conservatives and moderates is actually a proxy battle by supporters of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) with those backing Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
“But while Islamic beliefs have seen a renaissance in Malaysia, as they have done in other Muslim countries around the world, political analysts say what’s really going on here is an attempt by some of the country’s ethnic-Malay majority to use Islam to ensure they hold onto the reins of power here, as they have done since independence from Britain over 60 years ago.
“Briefly put, the rise in Islamist rhetoric in Malaysia is racial politics by another name,” the WSJ wrote in an article today.
Since the so-called political tsunami of Election 2008, race-based politics has gradually waned but found a new lease on life — or so critics contend — under the auspices of Islamic-centred groups such as Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma).
This is facilitated by the ethno religious identity of the Malays, which is inexorably tied to Islam by dint of the constitutional wording that describes Malays as Muslims.
While Isma professes the “defence” of Islam and Muslims as its stated goal, it has been forced to fend off accusations of racism. This view has been compounded by a sedition charge for Isma president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman for categorising the ethnic Chinese as “intruders” into the country.
“Malay supremacy was the old school. People like Abdullah Zaik and others like him belong to the new school, and that’s Islamist supremacy,” James Chin, Monash University’s head of political science, told the WSJ.
“It’s potentially more volatile,” Chin added.
The use of religion as means to curry favour with the electorate was also palpable in the tussle for “Allah”, the Arabic word for God that Muslims here consider to be exclusive to Islam.
The division was also clearly along political lines, with the ruling Umno and the BN it underpins staunchly against non-Muslim use of the word while the federal opposition PR adopted the view that there was no issue with Christians calling their God “Allah” in Malay.
The WSJ noted that president of Malay rights group Perkasa Datuk Ibrahim Ali had last year made the call to burn Malay-language bibles containing “Allah”.