Is Brunei’s Shariah Threat Real?

In 1997, Shannon Marketic, a former Miss USA who was somewhat down on her luck accepted an offer to go to the Sultanate of Brunei in exchange for US$3,000 a day to do some modeling and promotional work.

What happened after that, she alleged, had little to do with modeling and promotional work and a lot to do with being groped and sexually harassed at the palace of the tiny, oil-steeped sultanate. She charged that she had been held against her will for 32 days while being gassed and sexually molested.

Marketic sued the sultanate for US$10 million and told lurid tales of harem-like activities. She didn’t get anywhere with her suit, but enough other women have described having been flown into the sultanate to party at the 1,778 room palace in Bandar Sri Begawan, the capital, to make her charges believable. In 1993 the Philippine Senate investigated allegations that women were being lured to Brunei for sex, though no charges were ever brought against anyone from Brunei.

The sultan’s brother, Jefri, has left a widespread trail of escapades across the world, including in London. He named one of his yachts “Tits” with the two tenders named Nipple 1 and Nipple 2 and at one point was said to have kept a harem of 20 prostitutes in London.

A growing brood of the sultan’s children and other relatives have also been seen partying in hot spots across Asia, Europe and the US, particularly Hollywood. The huge, garish Empire Hotel in the capital has a vast ballroom in its basement where scantily-clad young westerners have been seen partying and carousing with members of the Sultan’s extended family. It is widely known in Bandar Sri Begawan that the modishly dressed young driving their Hummers and high-performance sports cars around town like to have just as much fun – including drinking alcohol and having gay relationships – as goes on anywhere, if not more so.

That makes it all the more hypocritical that the sultan earlier this year revised Brunei’s penal code to rely heavily on shariah law with all of its ramifications, including recommendations for stoning gays and adulterers.

Despite the hypocrisy, the sultanate has rejected numerous recommendations by the UN's Human Rights Council against the sixth-century Islamic punishments, which include widened use of the death penalty, restrictions on the right of freedom of expression and religion, and discrimination against women and girls.

Women who get abortions can be flogged publicly and children can be sentenced to amputations. Consensual sex by adulterers liable to stoning to death for everyone, it is assumed, but for the sultan’s far-flung family. One of the Sultan’s sons is widely believed to be gay and it is unlikely that anybody is going to stone him.

Criticism of the new penal code has been met with a warning by the sultan that mocking the king, Islamic scholars or shariah law would be categorized as offences.

The sultanate has always been publicly chaste although most vices including alcohol are easily available via a drive to Limbang, a slice of Malaysia next to the tiny kingdom. More than a decade ago, the one cocktail lounge in what was then the Sheraton Hotel – which had been thronged by various junior members of the royalty who were prone to park their Lambos in the driveway -- was closed by order of the Sultan, who in earlier years was regarded as sybaritic as his brother.

The question is how much of this antediluvian religious craziness means anything. There are underground bars in Bandar Sri Begawan that can be found without too much trouble where not only the Chinese, who make up 10 percent of the population, and thousands of Filipino workers disport, but Malays as well. There are said to be gay bars in the nominally strait-laced city where both Malays and Chinese meet freely,

So why now? Most of the speculation, since he isn’t talking, is that the 68-year-old sultan, going into his golden years, wants to get right with Allah. As sultan, he is the head of religion in the country, which is growing increasingly spherical with mosques equipped with state of the art loudspeaker systems that deliver the call to prayer as far as the oil platforms that dot the South China Sea, making him one of the richest men on the planet, with a net worth projected at US$20 billion. His partying years behind him, he is often seen publicly at prayers in the increasing number of mosques.

Whether anyone actually is stoned for adultery – after all the old testament injunction against casting the first stone may apply – doesn’t appear to matter, many residents have told journalists. Sin will go on as long as it is kept out of sight, at least in the toiling classes.

Nonetheless, Amnesty International is one of several human rights organizations horrified enough to issue a statement against the punishments, noting that Brunei has yet to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and is disappointed that Brunei has rejected all recommendations to this effect by UN delegates including from Egypt, Tunisia, Australia, Czech Republic, Djibouti, France, Portugal, Sierra Leone and Sweden, among others.

Despite guarantees in Brunei’s Constitution of religious freedom, laws and policies restrict this right for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Amnesty International charged. The revised Penal Code significantly expands the scope of the restriction and the penalties for offences, including by imposing the death penalty on offences such as mocking the Prophet Muhammad and by criminalizing exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.

Amnesty International strongly urged the government to reconsider its decision to reject key human rights recommendations. In particular, it must urgently bring its new Penal Code in line with international human rights law and standards. That, however is extremely unlikely to happen despite a supposed boycott on the pricey hotels owned in London and Los Angeles by the royal family.