Brunei: When Sharia serves the sultan and US media

Both the Sultan of Brunei and US media may be exploiting Sharia for their own purposes.

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah recently announced the adoption of a penal code based on Sharia [EPA]

On May 1, the Sultanate of Brunei introduced the first of three phases in its adoption of a penal code based on Islamic law, or Sharia. The move brought with it a flurry of international outcry, condemnation and moral indignation in the United States. The outrage over the adoption of a Sharia-based penal code, however, has outweighed any actual understanding of not only Sharia, but also of the Sultan of Brunei’s calculated political move.

Condemnations have focused, in particular, on the application of the death penalty by stoning for offences such as blasphemy and illicit sex acts such as sodomy, rape and extra-marital sex; whipping and amputations for “less serious crimes”. According to the United Nations, Brunei’s adoption of the penal code violates international law as “stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited“. Amnesty International also warned that the move threatened to send the country back to the “dark ages”.

Selective outrage

In keeping with a tradition of selective and uninformed outrage, US media outlets, celebrities and some lawmakers have been at the forefront of public condemnation of Brunei’s new penal code.

US headlines boasted of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s own Sharia non-compliancy and “wacky sex obsession“; admonished the silence of the US government; and called into question Brunei’s financial connection to the Clinton Foundation.

Hollywood, too, was unable to resist expressing outrage as it rushed to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel, owned by the Sultan’s Brunei Investment Agency. The boycott, which cost the agency over $1.5m in cancelled bookings, has been led by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organisation in the US.

Framing Brunei’s new Sharia system in terms of “anti-gay” and “anti-women” legislation, as it has been in US coverage and protests, obscures the actual motivations behind the Sultanate’s decision and nourishes the tired trope of “those crazy Muslims”, an angle which the US media has an all-too comfortable relationship with.

Critical engagement with this story has been near non-existent, save an attempt in a PolicyMic article by Scott Long in which he questions the motives of US protests against the Sultanate’s adoption of Sharia: “Why are gay bloggers, Tweeters and groups like Human Rights Campaign hyping this as an ‘anti-gay’ law? Obviously, because they haven’t talked to anybody in Brunei … [and] consulted feminist groups in South and Southeast Asia who could clue them in on the impact of these laws … They’re interested in publicity and the satisfaction of speaking their minds.”

The domestic context within the US is central to how this story has been covered. There is an increasing popular and political support for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights in the country, with 30 states currently embroiled in legal debates over the status of same-sex marriage. During the past year and a half, there have also been a number of anti-Sharia bills introduced and passed in several states, with the most recent bill being passed in the Florida state senate on April 28.

Thus, Sharia is scary; LGBTQ rights are trendy. Scary Islam stories that tap into current and ever-present ideological moods and sensitivities generate visceral reactions that in turn bring in clicks and traffic.

Brunei’s economic downturn

In the midst of the noise from all this outcry, US media outlets have hardly troubled themselves with asking why the playboy sultan is suddenly interested in bringing in a penal code that should (at least in theory) indict him before anyone else. It is interesting to note that the release of the latest economic performance figures for his country coincided with Sultan Bolkiah’s original announcement of bringing in Sharia. 

Head to Head – What is wrong with Islam today?

The 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum revealed that for the first time in its recent history, the most problematic factor for doing business in Brunei is now access to financing.

According to a report released in February by The Brunei Times, crude oil exports, fell 34 percent in one year. This had an immense effect on total exports, which decreased by 11.8 percent.

More striking drops came from miscellaneous manufactured articles and chemical exports, which fell by a whopping 53.8 and 98.3 percent, respectively. In contrast, chemical imports increased by 18.8 percent, transport rose 31.5 percent, and imports of manufactured articles went up by 39.2 percent. Brunei’s total trade between 2012 and 2013 has declined by 8.4 percent. In a single year, Brunei went through quite a dramatic economic downturn.

Although officials insist that Brunei’s economic decline is only short-term in nature, the population has felt its effect. Concern for increased crime has prompted some to welcome the implementation of the Sharia penal code. Of course, neither the economic decline nor the crimes punishable by the newly introduced penal code have an effect on the royals, who live an extremely lavish lifestyle that includes the keeping of mistresses.

Sharia as a means of control?

In giving an overall evaluation of what the Sharia is about, the 14th century scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya stated that: “The essence and basis of Sharia is wisdom and benefits for people in this world and the next. It is all justice, all mercy, all benefits, and all wisdom. Every application that goes from justice to oppression, from mercy to its opposite, from benefit to harm, and from wisdom to frivolity then it is not from Sharia – even if [someone] tries to interpret it as such.”

If we consider the motives of the sultan for introducing Sharia in Brunei, in light of what Ibn Qayyim says what Sharia is about, we can safely conclude that the sultan is joining the ranks of governments in the Muslim world who manipulate Islam to suit their own political purposes.

In an earlier address answering the negative reactions to the introduction of what he calls Sharia’s legal code, the sultan commented on what he feels are “abuses” of mass communication media, including Internet blogs and WhatsApp. There seems to be a strong sense of concern for political unrest triggered by “certain parties” who may be “provoking the people” and “wish to see internal strife or to instigate conflict and do not respect their leader or government”.

In contrast to what has been communicated through US media about the sultan introducing Sharia to target homosexuals or apply extreme punishments for crimes, he actually stated that his motives are political in nature: “[The critics] can no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery, and if there is a basis for them to be brought to court, the first phase of the [Sharia] (criminal) law this coming April will be relevant to them.”

Any further talk of religion is superfluous at this point. Focusing the discussion on Brunei’s move to adopt Sharia penal code, which more importantly relies on mischaracterisations of Sharia, is dishonest framing. It encourages knee-jerk reactionary protests that pick and choose their causes for alarm. Both the sultan and US media are exploiting Sharia for their own purposes. Meanwhile, the people of Brunei who are in the middle and ignored, will face the real possibility of the oncoming oppression.

Sana Saeed is the Senior Editor for Islawmix, a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, dedicated to bringing clarity to coverage of Islamic law in US news. She is also a researcher at the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at UC Berkeley.  

Follow her on Twitter: @SanaSaeed

Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence. He blogs here and has an active self-titled podcast on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter: @mohamedghilan