How repressive and stigmatised is our society that something as meek as this can be seen as threatening to a significant segment of the population, wonders Nicholas Chan.
Despite relentless efforts by Muslim moderate groups like the IRF and SIS to capture the attention, imagination and discourse of the increasingly fundamentalist Muslim population of Malaysia, it took a two-hour I Want to Touch a Dog (IWTAD) event on 19 October to generate widespread attention, diverse reactions and atypically in-depth discussions any activist in Malaysia would have, metaphorically speaking, killed for.
People are angry, confused, enthused, and most importantly, engaging each other openly, religiously and culturally to process the not-unseen, but ostensibly forgotten imageries of Muslims touching a canine. [Google William Roff’s book entitled Studies on Islam and Society in Southeast Asia (2009, NUS Press) and you will see a handsome Dalmatian sitting proudly next to Haji Abbas, a qadi from Singapore on the book cover.]
The event in Petaling Jaya, attended by 1500 people, and the chatter it spun has not only allowed Malaysian Muslims to confront their long-instilled stigma against dogs, but also to reevaluate their relationship and openness with The Others, even the religiously denigrated. It is also a clash of the sensory with the mind, often a paradox for Malaysians who are accustomed to rote but not constructivist learning, resulting in a feudalistic mindset that is submissive, insular, uncritical and parochial in thought and practice.
To the general populace, thought is what is being taught but not intellectually produced; practice is replication but not application of original knowledge and values that are close to the heart. If our classrooms had adopted proper pedagogical methods that allow for self-learning through experience and reflection instead of exam-based bland knowledge dissemination, this event may not have raised as many eye-brows as it has so far.
Certainly, this event has created the ripples and space for not only intra-ethnic discourse and reflection, but also inter-ethnic interactions. The dog owners are mostly non-Muslims while the participants are observed to be not your usual “liberal” crowd, but hijab-wearing mothers and youngsters. It was a good mix of Malaysia’s plural society directed by a genuine affection towards animals without the vile contamination of ethno-religious polemics.
Knowing the worsening effects of communal politics which results in the institutionalisation, rationalisation and mainstreaming of intolerance and underhanded thuggish tactics, many were heartened and surprised to see that a seemingly docile, community-based event could take place peacefully and in its wake, take everyone by surprise.
After an assembly by Gerakan Hapuskan Akta Hasutan (GHAH) in Penang’ Speaker’s Square was barbarically disrupted by right wing groups, one is left to wonder, is there any democratic space left for any movement deemed counter-current by the communally minded, religiously (as in its most archaic interpretation) justified ruling elites?
The IWTAD ingeniously and harmlessly, in an auspicious turn of events, provided a firm NO to that question. It has shown that there are still spaces to be carved out in our suffocating milieu – and not all of them have to be confrontational in nature and message.
Perhaps a detour from the usual politically wired forums and ceramahs would be a more effective method in a polarised society, because you don’t have to take sides. You just open up to innocent, cuddly pets and let your senses aand heart do the talking. It offers a choice to experience the unexperienced and it is an experience by choice – a luxury, sadly, in Malaysia’s invasive and religiously and culturally dictating society.
I don’t know the organiser in person; so I can’t claim to speak on his behalf about his intentions in organising the event. But instead of over-politicising and -analysing the event, like what the religious bureaucrats and Jew conspiracy theorists are ever fond of doing, can we not see this event in a more nuanced and perhaps even mundane manner? It does not mean the analysis cannot be contemplative and inquisitive. Sociologists often derived their interpretations from outwardly unremarkable observations.
What I see from the IWTAD event is that it is not a crusade. It is only another manifestation, albeit one with multitudes and multiplied reactions, of our daily, peasantry resistance against the dominating and assertive powers that have pervaded all circles of our lives, including the privacy of our bedrooms actually. It is something as innocuous as schoolgirls keeping their hair a tad longer than what is being allowed by school rules, or skirts a little shorter above the knee. Graffiti or street art is another good example.
These are forms of resistance we practise happily, creatively and mostly in an unapparent fashion in our routine lives, like a personal hideout from the obligations of work, family and society – because no matter if it is for the greater good or not, obedience will exert a personal, financial or even psychological cost to us. That is why we seek alternative and temporary outlets, which are greatly expanded by the social media, to express and hopefully, entertain ourselves.
Viewed in this light, at best, the IWTAD is a well-intended effort or even escapist endeavour in response to religious parochialism. But the fact that what started like a drizzle can turned into a storm should compel us to ponder for a moment: how repressive and stigmatised is our society that something as meek as this can be seen as threatening to a significant segment of the population?
Now it would seem that the possibility of replicating future events of this kind is close to zero, because the iron grip of communitarian politics is seeping in. A crackdown might be in the works too, because in Malaysia, every action generates an overreaction. But, the authorities and bigots must remember, popular dissent will eventually find a way of reaching the wider public, no matter how many holes to let some steam off are blocked.