On October 22nd, 2013 the Sultan of Brunei announced that the kingdom will implement Sharia-mandated criminal codes, including the death by stoning as a punishment of adultery. A copy of the new Sharia code states that penalties will include the severing of limbs for theft and public flogging for offenses such as abortion and consuming alcohol. Applicable only to Muslim citizens, the new code is slated to be phased in over the course of the next six months. The oil-rich State of Brunei borders Malaysia and Indonesia and is officially an Islamic state, with Muslims constituting 67-70% of the population.
“It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilize them to obtain justice. By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled,” announced Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who is the absolute ruler of the tiny kingdom, holding both the offices of Sultan and prime minister. He made this announcement in a speech to open the state's nominal parliament, the Majlis Ilmu.
The implementation of Sharia is resented by many citizens who cite its incompatibility with native Malay culture. Brunei is also home to a large non-Muslim population of ethnic Chinese people, indigenous tribes and South Asians, who practice Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and indigenous faiths. A British protectorate until 1984, the state has a dual legal system with civil courts governing based on legal codes implemented under British influence, and parallel Sharia courts adjudicating on Muslim family disputes.
"It seems almost incompatible with Malay culture, which is peace-loving," said Tuah Ibrahim, 57, a boat taxi driver in Bandar Seri Begawan, the national capital. “I can't imagine our country turning into somewhere like Saudi Arabia.”
The Sultan has blamed globalization and greater integration with the outside world for a perceived erosion of social morality. In 2012, the government made religious education mandatory for Muslim children and ordering the closing of all businesses on Friday, the Muslim sabbath. Brunei also prohibits publications of other religions and the display of other religious symbols such as the Christian crucifix. Proselytizing by religions other than Islam is strictly forbidden.
It remains to be seen how strictly the new laws will be enforced. The Attorney General of Brunei had promised in 2011 that cases judged under Sharia law would require a heavy burden of proof and allow judges considerable discretion.
Brunei's Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, the top-ranking Islamic cleric defended the new codes by saying “Let us not just look at the hand-cutting or the stoning or the caning (flogging) per se, but let us also look at the conditions governing them. It is not indiscriminate cutting or stoning or caning. There are conditions and there are methods that are just and fair.”
Mufti Awang also tried to address potential concerns from foreign tourists, saying “Please listen to our answer. Sir, do all potential tourists to Brunei plan to steal? If they do not, then what do they need to fear. Believe me when I say that with our Shariah criminal law, everyone, including tourists, will receive proper protection.”
Brunei's announcement has brought harsh condemnation from human rights activists. The deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson says that the “respect for basic civil and political rights is near zero in Brunei.” He added that “These rights-abusing policies are a good indication of why modern democracy and the right of people to participate in their government is a much better idea than anachronistic absolute monarchy. Its a huge step backwards, a demonstration of the more feudal aspects of Brunei that harks back to the 18th century model of absolute monarchy, and it gives a license for human abuses to be made law.”
Robertson further criticized the Sultan, saying “I think any university that has granted an honorary law degree to the Sultan should be thinking again as to whether they want to be associated with him. The Sultan has received doctorates in law from Oxford University, King's College London and Aberdeen Universities, and has a knighthood from the British monarchy.
The British government offered a more cautious response, with a Foreign Office spokesperson commenting: “We are aware of announcements that a new penal code has been enacted in Brunei based on Sharia principles. We are looking into what this will mean in practice and will raise any concerns with the Bruneian authorities.”
The Sultan of Brunei is one of the world's richest men, with Forbes Magazine estimating his wealth at US $20 billion. The Sultan and his family's luxurious lifestyle became the center of a scandal when Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the Sultan's younger brother and a former finance minister, was accused of embezzling as many as US $15 billion in state funds and for allegedly maintaining a “harem” of Western mistresses. The Sultan himself is reputed for his lavish lifestyle and his collection of as many as 2,500 automobiles, including several hundred Ferraris and Rolls Royces. The royal palace has 1,800 rooms and 290 bathrooms.
So we have a country where one segment of the population can watch the other get publicly flogged, stoned and executed for misdemeanors and non-crimes. No, this is not the Antebellum South of the U.S., and it is not the minorities that are to be treated like slaves on a daily basis. The majority are to be publicly humiliated like cattle for the sake of a non-existent deity, so that the treasury embezzling, livin' it large Sultan can recoup some of the "prestige" he's lost due to the shenanigans of his relations. It is the river boat driver who shares the real fear most poignantly - a diverse, tropical country being hurtled into becoming a 7th century Arabia. Islamic-Arab imperialism is alive and well.
Dean Van Drasek
Following the lead of Saudi Arabia. Let the mullahs police the populace.