Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei is an autocratic ruler with honours from across the Globe. One of the richest men in the World – not least due to Brunei’s oil wealth, which accounts for almost two thirds of its export revenue, and is set to run out within 30 years – Bolkiah has been awarded the British Honorary Companion of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, Honorary Knight Grand Cross of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, and Honorary Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. In Sweden he was the recipient of the Knight of the Royal Order of the Seraphim award. In France, the Grand Croix of the National Order of the Legion of Honour. In Germany, the Grand Cross Special Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. And US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the “excellent cooperation” and “robust relationship” between the US and Brunei recently. So, on the World stage, a pretty respected leader it seems (I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the oil and gas reserves). And yet, by the end of April this year, Brunei is set to become one of the most oppressive nations on Earth.
This isn’t the start of the oppressive nature of the state in Brunei. The country tries to maintain the image of respect for the freedom of other faiths, and other Islamic sects, by signing agreements like the ASEAN Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Human Rights. Similarly, economic strength and popular welfare provisions mask its vicious prevention of the most basic rights. Since the 1990s Brunei has been in the process of de-secularisation and enforcing an ideology that mixes Shafi’i Islamist thought and a Monarchical system of oppression to form a new political ideology they call ‘Melayu Islam Beraja‘. Basically, a weak attempt at a faith-based justification for the Sultan’s right to control and oppress whomever he pleases.
Through institutionalising ‘Melayu Islam Beraja‘, the Islamic Al-Arqam sect was banned by authorities in the mid-90s with the adherents made to undergo a sort of Orwellian reprogramming class. Their leader – Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad – spent 10 years in prison. The pretense for the ban was “theological deviation” from what is considered an acceptable interpretation of Islam (that which the Sultanate decides is acceptable) though the state only took notice of the movement as the sect grew in size, suggesting the true reason for the crackdown was political paranoia. Senior Christian Church leaders believe they’re under surveillance and are careful what they say at Church for fear of repression. The Bahá’í Faith is banned. Bibles are not permitted to be imported, all schools are banned from teaching Christianity, and temples dedicated to others faiths are no longer permitted to be built. Proselytizing for other faiths is already banned. It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to another faith; if someone does convert, they are immediately required to undergo Islamic schooling again until they revert. Public celebration of Christmas is banned. Additionally, all post-secondary school students must take lessons on the incredibly anti-secular, anti-democratic ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja. And as of this month, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s hideously oppressive new Syariah penal code based on the most cruel aspects of Shari’a is set to come into force. April 2014 marks the final stage of the de-secularisation process, transforming Brunei into a fully fledged Theocratic dictatorship.
Despite the International Commission of Jurists ruling that the new Syariah penal code violated practically every possible human right, in its quest to anchor concepts of justice to the 7th Century, Brunei decided to push ahead regardless. The ICJ said:
“If implemented, the code would lead to serious human rights violations by reintroducing the death penalty and imposing other cruel and inhuman punishment including stoning, even for conduct that should not even be considered criminal.”
– According to the new penal code, the death penalty for both Muslims and non-Muslims will now be utilised for those convicted of robbery, adultery, and ‘sodomy’. Amputation is the punishment for theft. For sexual ‘crimes’ the method of death will be stoning. Homosexuality carries the penalty of flogging. Despite Brunei’s apparent commitment to women’s rights, the ICJ notes that the new death penalty law will disproportionately apply to women. This is because it is difficult proving rape, and if the woman fell pregnant due to being raped, she will be prosecuted and stoned for ‘adultery’ whilst the rapist is statistically likely to walk free.
Ex-Muslims face death for apostasy. Public gatherings of those adhering to other faiths will now be restricted and those wishing to gather will need to register. Anyone caught selling anything during Friday prayers will lose their licence to conduct business. Also under the new code, if a non-Muslim adopts a Muslim child, the biological Muslim parent will now face 5 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
The new penal code will also crack down on the fundamental right to free expression. For Muslims who publicly insult the Prophet, or to mock and deny certain teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison, and 40 lashes. But it isn’t just mocking faith that will carry punishment. Opposition to the implementation of harsh Shari’a codes has been popping up on social media sites from all different sects of Brunei life; including from Muslims. The grotesquely oppressive regime that runs the country responded by threatening anyone caught mocking or insulting the new penal code itself:
“They 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, then therefore, the first phase of the Syariah law this coming April will be relevant to them.”
– Criticising and mocking the law itself – the very fundamental of a free and progressive society – is now to be considered a crime. It is a curious threat that highlights the narcissism of the Sultan. Human beings are not “given the liberty” by anyone else to speak freely. Free expression is a natural condition, restricted by those who assume positions of privilege for themselves to erect barriers to that freedom. Usually when it threatens the prevailing power structure.
Quite ridiculously, non-Muslims will be banned from using certain words. 19 words in all. The state will now punish non-Muslims for uttering baitullah; Al Quran; Allah; fatwa; Firman Allah; hadith; Haji; hukum syara’; ilahi; Ka’bah; kalimah al syahadah; kiblat; masjid; imam; mufti; mu’min; solat; and wali. This is impossible to define as anything other than oppression. A clear attempt to prevent non-Muslims freely critiquing, inquiring, and investigating a religion and its history, because that religion and that history is intrinsically ties to the perceived legitimacy of the Sultans authority. Having read the Qur’an several times, and familiarised myself with a collection of Hadith, I am struggling to figure out where a ban on Islamic words is found.
Brunei’s Minister for Religious Affairs, Muhammad Abdulrahman met with the chairman of the Saudi Consultative Council, Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al ash-Sheikh in February this year to take advice on how to implement Shari’a. One has to question the mentality of a leadership that sees the Saudi system – a system that has just designated all atheists as terrorists and is hated even by the majority of Muslims – as one to be emulated. Again, it is one of narcissism. This is echoed in the Sultan’s own words on the new penal code, which he claims:
“…should be regarded as a form of special guidance from God and would be part of the great history of Borneo island.”
– The Sultan seems to be under the bizarre impression that his personal beliefs have the inherent and legitimate authority to inform others how they should view a code based on his personal beliefs and values. One suspects faith is the excuse for the creeping paranoia at the knowledge that political instability in the country is inevitable, as crude oil and natural gas reserves deplete without a viable economic alternative – that ensures the high standard of public services many in Brunei now expect – short of political and economic liberalisation; a threat to the autocratic Sultanate itself. And so increasingly one paranoid sect of one faith burns its dictates into the fabric of society and refuses to allow any form of criticism. It is an ideology invented by the state, and which coincidentally, permits the state the privilege of being the sole authority on the whole of Islam. The Sultan is essentially casting himself as a Medieval Pope. It is no surprise that under those conditions, oppression is aimed at potential political – as well as religious – dissent and free expression. Indeed, if the Sultan genuinely believed his position to be self evidently legitimate, the people would come to the same conclusion freely, rather than at the point of a gun. I would suggest he probably knows he has no more right to rule and to use his beliefs to infringe upon the liberty of others, than has any other citizen of Brunei.
The new penal code is one long grotesque licence to abuse others, that quite obviously exists for no other reason than to further cement the power of the ruling family. It is an extension of the crackdown on Al-Arqam. It is political. It is the product of an oppressive and sociopathic regime with a delusional sense of its own importance and supremacy, controlled by a paranoid and narcissistic man that the British, French, Germans, Swedes and Americans among others have pathetically bestowed honours upon for decades.