From The Australian
Fear of Sharia stalks opulent sultanate of Brunei
Richard Lloyd Parry
June 06, 2015 9:16AM
The residents of Brunei are in fear over the sultanate’s new Sharia laws.
The residents of Brunei are in fear over the sultanate’s new Sharia laws. Source: News Corp Australia
Mohamad Malik does not look like a man heading for death row but, in the Sultanate of Brunei these days, appearances can be deceptive. On the face of it he is a model of propriety — a successful small businessman in his 40s, with clients among Brunei’s wealthy expatriates and foreign embassies.
He formerly worked for an airline; he has travelled the world, but always returns to the comfort, safety and tax-free affluence of Brunei.
However, in little more than two years’ time, he could end up being stripped, bound and stoned to death by a mob. The respectable Mr Malik is gay, a fact known to his closest friends and family for 30 years. In a country dominated by Islam, it has always been something to be discreet about. Last year it became potentially a matter of life and death.
It was then that Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s Sultan, friend to Britain’s royal family and one of the world’s richest men, ordered the introduction of Sharia, the strict legal code based on the injunctions of the Koran.
As well as amputation of hands and feet for theft and whipping for adultery or drinking alcohol, the proposed code mandates death by stoning for “sexual intercourse done against the course of nature”.
The announcement caused shock in Brunei and angry protests across the world, including a boycott of properties bought by the Sultan, among them the Dorchester Hotel in London.
A year later international outrage has tailed off, but within Brunei a deep sense of uncertainty and anxiety remains, among people as diverse as school teachers, Christian priests and Brunei’s gay community.
“At first we could not take it in — it was such a shock,” says Mr Malik (not his real name). “We didn’t know what would happen, and we still don’t. You’re always unsure in Brunei. Nothing is clear cut — it’s all left to the interpretation of civil servants.”
The new laws were to be introduced in three phases. The first, which came into force in May last year, covers offences punishable only by fines of imprisonment, such as the failure by Muslims to perform Friday prayers, or to fast during the month of Ramadan.
Phase II, to be introduced a year after the publication of a new criminal code, includes such punishments as amputation of feet and hands and whipping.
The last phase, scheduled to come in a year after that, covers crimes punishable by death, including sodomy and apostasy by Muslims.
However, the introduction of the last two phases has been mysteriously delayed. Some speculate that the Sultan has had second thoughts — rattled, perhaps, by the noisy boycott of the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel by the Hollywood elite.
Foreign diplomats have been told that the delay is only temporary, though — and, for certain Bruneians themselves, life has already changed.
Islam in Brunei remains a long way from the harsh orthodoxies of a country such as Saudi Arabia. Many women wear headscarves, but there is no sanction against those who do not. Although the sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned, foreigners are allowed to import it and drink freely behind closed doors.
So far there have been only two prosecutions for minor offences under the first part of the new code. But fear has brought an end to the discreet parties that Mr Malik and his gay friends used to hold in their homes. The “lady boys”, flamboyant male transvestites, who used to be seen on the streets and at wedding parties, have disappeared.
Last Christmas religious police ordered shops and restaurants to remove trees, decorations and even Santa Claus hats on pain of five years’ in jail. Ten per cent of the country’s 416,000 people are Christians, but the country’s churches are now more careful than ever to avoid anything that could be taken as evangelising.
Church schools are banned from teaching Christianity and compelled to teach Islam. At least two schools were forced to remove the cross from their badges. St Andrew’s school, in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, had to drop its school hymn because of its reference to “the Lord”.
Why has the Sultan chosen to introduce such a law, which can only repel expatriates and western investors, and which would appear to criminalise members of his own family, such as his brother, Prince Jefri?
“When you’re young you don’t remember God,” says Mr Malik. “But as you get older you start to worry.
“He knows what he did when he was young — his family did worse. He has more reason to worry than most.”