The world is a place full of rich and diverse cultures, but it is easy to lose sight of how varied the world’s beliefs can be. However, one news story from this week really helps highlight not only the differences between ours and other cultures, but also the overarching curiosities — and fears — between them.
The conservative Islamic majority in Malaysia view dogs as unclean animals, and as such are not permitted to touch or even be around them. If they do come into contact with a dog, they are supposed to undergo a ritual cleansing known as “sertu” or “samak”. This is not the interesting part – many different cultures have taboos regarding various species of animal (Kosher laws in Judaism, Haram/Halal in Islam, Ital in Rastafarianism).
The interesting thing that happened was when Malaysian pharmacist Syed Azmi Alhabshi orchestrated the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event on Facebook. His goal was to give curious people a safe place to interact with the culturally taboo creatures – he even invited an Islamic scholar to show cautious patrons how to conduct the ritual wash after they had their fill of petting puppies.
And the turnout was terrific. Almost 1,000 people were in attendance, eager to engage with the adorable, yet deeply stigmatized, canines. However, when pictures began to circulate of women in head scarves enjoying the company of dogs, the conservative base of Malaysia flipped it’s collective lid, sending some 3,000 angry messages to Mr. Syed Azmi’s phone, along with a few physical threats.
The event was intended to be a fun, enlightening display of how venturing outside one’s cultural comfort zone can often reap some pleasant rewards (i.e., petting puppies). However, the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event ended up proving, once again, how tightly humans will cling to their beliefs and shun — or threaten — those who disregard them.
And, to make matters worse, the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event quickly became a polarizing issue, getting lumped in with existing conflicts in Malaysia regarding the consumption of alcohol and pork products, as well as casual dress. While it was meant to be an educational experience for Muslims and non-Muslims alike regarding the proper code of conduct when in the presence of dogs — as well as an obvious stab at quelling the Muslim fears surrounding them — the event escalated to the point where Mr. Syed Azmi was forced to make a public apology.
While it is nobody’s place to assess the validity of someone else’s firmly held beliefs, when those beliefs give way to toxic slander and death threats against those that dare challenge them, it is hard not to find oneself taking sides. And while there are surely those among us up in arms right now about the Malaysian culture’s warped view on what we deem “man’s best friend,” try to remember your frustration and use it as a lens through which we can view our cultures firmly held beliefs, and how we treat those who act outside of them.
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The Washington Post – Malaysian Muslims feel heat for petting dogs, and social media bites back
The New York Times – Want to Touch a Dog? In Malaysia, It’s a Delicate Subject
Facebook – I Want to Touch a Dog Group