Last october, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, a pharmacist who’d never petted a dog, held an event for the canine-curious in a park outside Kuala Lumpur. Many Malaysian Muslims consider dogs religiously unclean and avoid them out of fear; Syed Azmi explained on Facebook that he hoped the event—which he called “I Want to Touch a Dog”—could “help them (and me) not to be afraid.” It appeared to be a huge success: hundreds of people showed up, and photos of hijab-clad women embracing huskies, pugs, and chow chows got national attention. But in the days that followed, Malaysian Islamic authorities denounced Syed Azmi for trying to “pit Muslims against one another,” and the National Fatwa Council ruled that Muslims should not touch dogs.
Add that ruling to a growing list. In recent years, Malaysia’s state and federal fatwa councils—nervous that secularization and religious pluralism might be leading Muslims to stray from their faith—have issued a slew of edicts against seemingly innocuous practices, including not just dog-petting but candlelight vigils, yoga, and Halloween. The National Fatwa Council now has some 300 fatwas on the books, and state councils have issued nearly 1,500 more. (They are cataloged, for easy reference, on the government-run Web site e-fatwa.gov.my.) Such fatwas aren’t empty threats: Malaysia’s justice system affords fatwa councils jurisdiction over Muslims (who make up 61 percent of Malaysia’s population), and certain fatwas have the force of law. Those Muslims who disregard them can be punished.
With frivolous fatwas proliferating, liberal Malaysians have begun to protest. “If the issue of touching dogs is the epitome of Islamic discussion in Malaysia,” one op-ed writer lamented in The Malaysian Insider, “then we are on a sad spiritual path.” A Muslim blogger who attended the dog-petting event recently ridiculed the National Fatwa Council as “insecure” and called for the retraction of numerous decisions—though not before sharing a few fatwa ideas of his own (to be banned: Justin Bieber, the guys who invented the Macarena, and “my neighbor who sings karaoke at 11pm every night”).
Some fatwa-weary citizens have gone to court (one upcoming case involves a fatwa labeling a prominent feminist NGO “deviant”), while others have taken to the streets. In one instance, after the National Fatwa Council condemned tomboys as “inconsistent with nature,” a group of women with pixie cuts and bobs marched in protest through downtown Kuala Lumpur. “Short hair! Who cares!” they chanted. “Stupid fatwas everywhere!”