Her crime? Playing with her rescue dog, Bubu, and posting a video of it online.
Nurhanizah Abdul Rahman, who wears a headscarf and is part of the nation’s majority Malay-Muslim community, rescued her dog from a mass culling exercise two years ago. In July, she joined a Facebook contest by a pet food brand which required her to record and upload a video about her relationship with her dog.
The post attracted negative attention from other Malaysian Facebook users, leading the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) to issue a strongly worded statement posted on the director-general’s Facebook page.
Othman Mustapha, the director-general of Jakim, said touching dogs on purpose and without reason was forbidden by Islam and that Nurhanizah had caused distress among the Muslim community.
“We find her actions to be highly disturbing to Muslims here as they contravene our culture and the tenets of our school of jurisprudence. Jakim hopes the individual will immediately stop her actions and repent to Allah. Her actions seem as if she is trying to start a new culture that can subject Islam to insults,” he said. Nurhanizah did not respond, but removed the video from her Facebook page.
In Malaysia, the government recognises only the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which dogs are seen as najis (ritually unclean) and Muslims require a ritual cleansing if they come into contact with them.
According to Derek Kok, an analyst with IMAN Research, a think tank that focuses on ethno-religious relations, society and perception, the dog issue is a particularly Malaysian one because of the unique identity politics of melting-pot Malaysia.
“It isn’t a cultural war between conservative and liberal Muslims but rather it is reflective of a lack of theological diversity as only one school of thought is deemed correct by the state despite the differences in the various jurisprudence schools of Islam.”
This was echoed by shariah lawyer Nizam Bashir, who said that while there was a push to brand Malaysia as being from the Shafie school it was important to “be magnanimous” and appreciate diversity of thought.
“Traditionally, Islamic scholars were quite accommodating of the fact that another person may have a different viewpoint on a particular issue. When we try to sort of enforce one sort of viewpoint we lose our richness of tradition and scholarship, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Being insular only further reinforces the prejudice that anyone with a different viewpoint from you must be a deviant.”
He also criticised the approach of shaming “offenders” publicly. “It may be easier to do that, or to enact a law and enforce it, but that’s not what it means to be Muslim. If you are striving to be on the path you don’t necessarily take the easiest way out.”
Dog-related incidents have often made national headlines in Malaysia. In October last year, the same religious government body – also responsible for certifying food and drink as halal – demanded vendors selling hot dogs rename the product to avoid confusion.
This move drew flak from many Malaysians, including Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz who said: “I am a Muslim and I am not offended. Please do not make us seem stupid and backward.”
The Islamic Affairs Minister, Jamil Khir Baharom, later clarified that Jakim would work out a compromise with the outlets if they did not “want to be tolerant”.
In June 2015, popular Malaysian actress Nor Fazura drew the ire of her fans after uploading a picture of herself with a dog on her Instagram account, while in 2014 pharmacist Syed Azmi Alhabshi was forced to seek police protection after receiving death threats for organising an “I Want to Touch a Dog” event to give Malay-Muslims an opportunity to connect with dog owners and pet canines. In July 2013, a Muslim dog trainer, Maznah Mohd Yusof, was arrested after an old video of her bathing her dogs resurfaced and went viral during Ramadan.
This anti-canine cultural phenomenon has trickled down to non-Muslims – according to Melinda Joy Gomez, project manager for canine welfare initiative Malaysian Dogs Deserve Better (MDDB), the prejudice against dogs in Malaysia has become more severe over the years. “It is also an oppositional reaction from Muslims against fellow Muslims who are liberal with dogs. In the past there were already Muslims keeping dogs, but they did not publicise it like how they are doing now,” she said.
Oddly enough, she notes, catching stray dogs – an activity carried out by local councils who often hire independent contractors – is heavily commercialised and only companies run by Bumiputra (meaning “son of the soil” and referring to Malays and indigenous peoples) can bid for the tender.
Dr Maszlee Malik, a senior lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia, believes these incidents and others were politicised for sectarian, ethno-racial or political purposes.
“It is unfortunate that due to the failure of our education system to bring people together – caused by institutionalised racial polarisation – people are mutually prejudiced. Certain animals, certain symbols, and maybe certain attitudes or appearances are associated with certain races, ethnicities and religions. This is where for Malays these days, pigs and dogs are associated with non-Malays. So according to such identity politics, if you are Malay but you pat dogs, or you keep dogs, or are trying to make dogs pets, then you are not Malay enough, and so less Islamic,” he said. “It is not,” he notes, “a purely religious issue. Religion only came in to strengthen the identity politics”.
Often, Muslim dog owners take to private Facebook groups that vet membership to discuss pet issues, swap info about strays for adoption, or simply share videos of dogs doing endearing things. In its description, one group warns its 900 members that harassment or hostility will not be tolerated.
And for Muslim dog owners like Hazlam (not his real name), 40, the issue is a lot of hot air by those in authority who don’t really understand faith.
“I’ve had dogs since I was a kid. My family didn’t see it as an issue. I don’t see why the Islamic authorities feel the need to monitor us like children doing something wrong.” ■