Photo posted on the Facebook page "I want to touch a dog".

Muslims in Malaysia consider dogs impure and thus try to avoid contact with them at all costs. One man decided to fight these negative perceptions by organising an event called "I want to touch a dog.” But despite the precautions that he undertook with religious authorities, this meeting between humans and their four-legged friends ended up unleashing a national scandal.

Syed Azmi is a Malaysian pharmacist who often organises charity events. He created a Facebook page to invite fellow Muslims to come to Central Park in Bandar Utala, a chic suburb of Kuala Lumpur on October 21… to touch a dog.

While authorised, the event quickly stirred up hostile reactions. Local media as well as members of the Malaysian Muslim community said they were shocked by the event. According to the country’s National Fatwa Council, contact with man’s best friend is “contrary to the rites and rituals of Shafi’ism"a school of Sunni Islam observed rigorously in the country. Azmi even received death threats. In a press conference, he apologised publically for “troubles and insensitivities” caused by his initiative, explaining that he in no way intended to “turn people against their faith."

‘We did everything in order to respect the recommendations of the religious authorities’

I had the idea to organise this event after watching a video on YouTube showing a blind man who struggled when asking for help in Malaysia: people avoided him because he was accompanied by a Seeing Eye dog. I found that sad because the same thing could have happened to any one of my friends. So I launched the idea for this event in a Facebook status, explaining that my motivation was to try to help us Muslim Malaysians overcome our fear of dogs.

The first reactions to my post were very positive. Alas, I discovered later that the positive reactions were far from being representative of the overall response to my initiative!

As soon as the number of participants signed up on Facebook surpassed 100, we had to notify the police as we were gathering in a public space. The police in turn referred us to the religious authorities. We got their consent but under certain, specific conditions. We agreed to scrupulously remind participants how to perform the Shafi’i purification rite afterwards and to remind them that Shafi’is are only allowed to keep dogs by necessity [for guarding a house or a farm, for example] and that it is forbidden to adopt a dog as a domestic pet. We had to remind them that dogs remain impure and that if you ever accidentally touch an animal, it’s important to perform a complex hygiene ritual afterwards which we call "sertu.” [Editor’s note: These bans only apply in the Shafi’i school of Sunni’ism as they are not from the Quran or the tradition of the Prophet, which simply forbid dogs from coming inside the house or into places of prayer.]

Participants wash their hands after touching dogs.

‘I don’t regret launching this initiative, which allowed a space for exchange and tolerance between communities’

We were pleasantly surprised by the number of people who came to the gathering. About 300 confirmed on Facebook…but, on the actual day, more than 1,000 participants showed up!

On our end, we had brought 120 dogs to meet the public, but we didn’t have enough personnel to supervise everyone. Even though we had carefully explained all of recommendations of the religious authorities and that this event was a special exception with a pedagogical purpose, some participants didn’t hesitate to pick up the dogs and stroke them.

When photos later appeared on Facebook showing veiled women holding dogs in their arms, it profoundly shocked the Muslim community. I started receiving many phone calls from Muslims saying that they were both shocked and unhappy. I even received death threats.

It’s sad that these people didn’t understand the goal of our initiative. All the same, I sincerely apologised because I wasn’t at all trying to shock people nor go against the dictates our our beliefs. I just wanted to combat misunderstandings and fear.

Some people spoke up in my favour, vouching for my character by saying that all of the charity events that I organised in the past had really helped the community. For my part, I don’t regret launching this initiative because there weren’t only Muslims at this event, there were also people of Chinese heritage, many of whom have pets. This meant that, for several hours, there was a tolerant exchange between the two communities and a better understanding of each other’s practices.

All of the photos were posted on the Facebook page "I want to touch a dog".

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country, with a population that is 60% Malay (most of whom are Muslim), 25% Chinese and 10% Indian – the latter two communities long established in the country. Islam is the official state religion, but Islamic law only applies to Muslims.