Above: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah greets people to mark 50 years on throne in Brunei/Photo: UNI
The Brunei Darussalam’s decision to implement strict penalties like amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery and homosexuality has raised hackles around the world
By Asif Ullah Khan
One of the biggest misconceptions about Brunei Darussalam is that a lot of people think it is in the Middle East due to its oil wealth and is ruled by a sultan. Sometimes people also confuse it with Dares Salaam, the old capital of Tanzania, because of the word Darussalam, which means Abode of Peace.
Of late, the tiny southeast Asian monarchy has been caught up in a storm of criticism for introducing new and harsh Sharia laws—amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery and homosexuality. As expected, it triggered an uproar all over the world with celebrities like Hollywood actor George Clooney and rock star Elton John joining in. Clooney, who is also a political activist, has asked the world’s elite, who regularly use one of the nearly dozen or so super luxury hotels around the world, including in London, Los Angeles, Paris, and so on, that the Sultan of Brunei owns, to boycott them and pick other hotels for staying and dining out and the British pop icon has echoed his call.
That brings up the question: Is Brunei the first country in the world to implement Sharia laws? There are about 10 countries in the world, which include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—allies of the West—where the penalty for homosexuality is death. But if there has been no such hue and cry against them, it is because they keep the West’s arms factories alive. Despite their abysmal human rights record, especially in Saudi Arabia, there is hardly a murmur against them.
One thing that most people don’t seem to understand about Muslim societies is that culture plays an important part as far as implementing the Sharia law is concerned. For example, Saudi Arabia had banned women driving cars because of its centuries-old Arab and nomadic traditions. Nowhere in the Quran and the Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) have such things been mentioned. In fact, we find references to women riding camels and horses even during the Prophet’s time.
Qanta A Ahmed, associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and author of In the Land of Invisible Women, says that political conservatives practising brands of contemporary radical Islamist values back the literal immobilisation of women for political purposes—to preserve male power and advantage.
In Brunei’s case, it is very different. It is a Malay-dominated country with a sizable population of Chinese and minuscule segment of Indian origin. Before the advent of Islam, the entire Malaya region was Hindu and even after converting to Islam the influence of Hindu culture is very much evident in every aspect of life in Brunei. The good thing about Malay culture is that, instead of trying to change it, they are proud of their Hindu heritage.
When Brunei became independent in 1984 after being a British protectorate for a long time, His Majesty the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah adopted the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) concept as the national governing philosophy, which means by race it’s Malay, the official religion of state is Islam and the system of governance is monarchy. That is why there is a huge difference between Saudi Arabia and Brunei despite both being Islamic countries. Saudis follow the radical Wahabi strand while Brunei has officially declared that it follows Mazab Shafi‘i, one of the four schools of fiqh (jurisprudence). The other three being Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali. Saudi Arabia does not recognise such schools of thought and even considers some of the practices as forbidden by Islam.
So, even after the enforcement of Sharia laws, Brunei will be very different from Saudi Arabia because it is a liberal and multi-racial society, which has never placed any religious restrictions on people belonging to other faiths and their places of worship, unlike Saudi Arabia. Right in the city centre of its capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, stands a Buddhist temple from where the celebrations of Chinese New Year kicks off. A short distance away from the Buddhist temple are Our Lady of the Assumption Church and St Andrew’s Anglican Church where Mass is regularly held on Sunday. The gala Chinese New Year function organised by the Chinese community is attended by His Majesty the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and all the members of the royal family. Of course, being a Muslim country, the sale of alcohol is forbidden but non-Muslims can bring it in within a prescribed quantity from neighbouring eastern Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.
Apart from other things, Brunei, with a population of 400,000, is known for having one of the highest car-ownership rates (roughly one car per every two people) in the world. And Bruneian women are not only driving cars but also teaching men how to drive as most of the driving instructors are women.
As far as the new Sharia laws are concerned, people have only concentrated on punishment for homosexuality and adultery but have not read the statement issued by Brunei’s prime minister’s office. It says: “Brunei Darussalam has always been practising a dual legal system, one that is based on the Syariah law and the other on common law.”
The Syariah Penal Code will run in tandem with the country’s Penal Code, which is based on English common law.
But it clearly says that prosecutors must fulfill a high burden of proof in order to carry out such punishments, otherwise cases will be tried in the conventional court system.
This is the reason why one seldom hears that somebody has been given the death penalty for homosexuality because Sharia laws require authentic and reliable witnesses, which is very difficult for the prosecution.
Demystifying Sharia courts, Arfa’eza Abdul Aziz, senior Malaysian journalist and political activist based in Kuala Lumpur, told India Legal: “When I was a court reporter, I could see that the arguments presented before a Sharia judge were similar to that of a civil court. Their arguments were based on Hadith, Quranic verses, Islamic precedents and books on Islamic jurisprudence by respected scholars.” Arfa’eza says that like any other law, the burden of proof is on the prosecution and it should have enough evidence to prove its case or contention and added that under common law cases are decided on the basis of “beyond reasonable doubt” but in Sharia law it should be “beyond any doubt”.
Singapore-based Syed Khalid Husain, a senior journalist and writer on Islamic affairs, told India Legal that international media is unfair to Muslim countries as it does not highlight the justice, equality, peace and respect for rights of individuals of even non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries and all over the Gulf, and raise a hue and cry over Sharia criminal laws which aim to maintain justice and keep peace in society.
He said: “Capital punishments similar to hudud laws are prevalent in non-Muslim countries, including the US and Singapore, to maintain law and order, which also aim to achieve the same peaceful social order, but that is easily digested by the global community and media. No wonder, according to a famous Washington University survey, Singapore ranks first in Asia and far ahead of Saudi Arabia in ‘Islamiat’, that is implementing laws that are similar to Sharia laws.”
But in Brunei, the issue has generated a heated debate on social media. Even Aleem Bolkiah, a member of the Brunei royal family, wrote on his Instagram that despite not being a member of the LGBT community, he has friends who are part of it and they are some of the nicest people he has ever met. He said no one should be judged or punished for living the life they want to live.
Another Instagram called #bruneigay asked when this stupidity will end. “Who gave these people the right of judging for the death or life of other people because of their sexuality?!”
However, an openly gay Bruneian, who wants to be identified only by his initials, JR, told India Legal that he is neither worried nor scared for two reasons. Firstly, the actual execution of Sharia laws is incredibly difficult as it requires creditable and reliable witnesses. Secondly and more importantly, unlike Indonesia where there is a greater degree of vigilantism against the LBGT community, Brunei has none.
He said: “And contrary to the Western backlash, we’ve had zero gaybashing ever. The number of hate crimes against the LGBT community in the USA, for example, is atrocious!”
“It’s the sensationalism behind the story. It feeds off the misconception that we’re all barbarians and what’s worse is that the twisted narrative doesn’t even come from within the country,” he added.
“It’s easy to bully a small southeast Asian country which has little political weight. The issue of the required number of witnesses alone will be one of the reasons why nobody is getting stoned anytime soon,” he concluded.
—The writer is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times