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Brunei: The Shariah Surprise

May 1, 2014, will be significant in the history of the lush and sleepy Southeast Asian state of Brunei. On that day, the Sultanate enacted potentially harsh Shariah legal codes, following instructions by the country’s 67-year-old absolute monarch. Protests by Hollywood stars boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel chain partially owned by Brunei authorities ensured that Brunei’s dramatic move has hit the international media.

Brunei has not often captured attention since the 15th and 16th centuries when it controlled vast domains in Borneo and the region of the southern Philippines. The march of history turned against the Sultanate, and by the turn of the 20th century it was a British protectorate, managed by a British resident.

Steps toward independence were taken in the wake of World War II. The Sultan and the British authorities agreed to a constitution in 1959, allowing the Sultan to rule as absolute monarch with full executive authority. Formal independence came on January 1, 1984.

Life is good for the 420,000 citizens of Brunei, not least for the Sultan himself with an estimated wealth of $40 billion and a palace with 1,788 rooms. But his other functions as prime minister, finance minister, and defence minister enable him to look after his citizens well, drawing on the nation’s fabulous oil and natural gas reserves. Bruneians pay no tax, they enjoy free education and health care, and are even flown out of the country free of charge if necessary medical assistance is not available in Brunei itself. Ranked by some indicators as the fifth richest nation on earth, Brunei seems an unlikely candidate for the application of the harshest provisions of Islamic law.

The new legal codes will not be introduced overnight. Phase one will be built around fines and jail terms for those offences deemed unacceptable by the new Shariah legal codes, such as falling pregnant out of wedlock, consuming alcohol, homosexuality, insulting the Prophet, and leaving Islam. In subsequent phases, to be brought in during 2015/2016, the harsher penalties of flogging, stoning, severing of limbs, and so forth will be implemented.


Hollywood stars are not the only ones protesting. Unofficial reports suggest that some members of the royal family do not agree with these new policies. In a letter to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the International Commission of Jurists lambasted the new laws. Even the Obama administration expressed its concerns to Bruneian authorities, though given its anaemic record in responding to excesses by some of its oil-rich Arab allies, it’s unlikely that this administration’s protest to the Sultan had much of a bite.

What has got into the Sultan? In announcing the new laws, he observed that “it is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilise them to obtain justice.” He dismissed critics, saying, “These parties, it seems, have attempted to mock the king, the Islamic scholars and sharia. They are using the new media, such as blogs, WhatsApp and so on, which are not just accessed by locals but also by those overseas.” A possible source of the Sultan’s ideas may be Brunei’s clerics, with the most senior Muslim cleric Dr. Ustaz Hj Awg Abdul Aziz Juned stating in a lecture in London: “Not even a day after the law was announced, human rights groups on social media commented that the steps taken by the Brunei government to implement the law was out of date and not modern.”

Impact on Brunei’s religious minorities

There are significant concerns, both among some Muslim Bruneians and among Brunei’s 33% of non-Muslim citizens. Non-Bruneian aliens resident in the Sultanate are also apprehensive, such as the 30,000 Filipino residents, many of whom are Catholic. One Catholic priest in Brunei questioned whether it would be possible to conduct baptisms of newborn babies, given that the new rules prohibit the “propagation of religion other than Islam to a Muslim or a person having no religion.”

Supporters of the new legislation point out that Brunei has long implemented some Shariah provisions, mainly relating to civil matters such as marriage and inheritance. However, some are asking whether such “soft” Shariah laws are merely the beginning of the slippery slope toward Hudud, the harsh system of punishment which Shariah Law lays down for offences deemed major.

Brunei represents a paradox: a fabulously wealthy 21st century state choosing to adopt legal codes sourced in and more appropriate to ancient nomadic societies. It seems that creeping Shariah has no boundaries.