The Real Story Behind Brunei's Sharia Laws Isn't the One That Gay Rights Groups Are Telling You

ByScott Long

Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, is a cross between a Bond villain and Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church. In his oil-rich lair, Bolkiah has devised an evil plot to kill all the gays. At least, that's what the Western press and U.S. LGBT groups are saying. Nine months ago, the Sultan promised to phase in a criminal code based on Syariah — Malay for Sharia, Islamic law. This week, Western gay activists decided that that means "outrageous anti-gay legislation." Enough said.

Image Credit: Flickr/watchsmart. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah.

Through a satellite firm, the Dorchester Collection, Brunei's Finance Ministry invests in a tier of top-starred hotels. Social media have whipped up boycotts against them and celebrities like Jay Leno protested outside the Beverly Hills Hotel this week. Leading the boycotts is the Human Rights Campaign, the richest U.S. LGBT group, which is now trying to extend its tentacles internationally. A "same-sex wedding package in Brunei," it warned, is "death by stoning."

Few of the people now protesting could have told you a week ago where Brunei was on a map. For most Americans, it's more a Jeopardy question than a real jurisdiction. But ignorance is a bad starting point for an international campaign. For one thing, LGBT activists show a strange indifference to how Brunei's action transcends "gay" identities — and will especially target women. In fact, global women's movements have vastly richer histories of working consultatively and building coalitions across borders. The insular U.S. LGBT groups need to learn from that. In that spirit, let's clarify some things.

First, what is Sharia? It's painted as a set of barbaric punishments with gays as a special target. In fact, Sharia is a diverse, sophisticated legal system. "Classical" Sharia was never turned into a legal code. It's a set of interpretations by Islamic scholars who drew principles for conduct from the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

Criminal law makes up only a small part of Sharia; it mostly deals with property, inheritance and marriage. In these, it discriminates against women, but plenty of European legal systems remained more biased into the 20th century.

All Sharia schools punish a variety of sexual offenses. They do not punish "homosexuality" — Sharia doesn't even recognize the concept. They do, however, penalize sexual acts between men as extramarital sex. Most Sharia provisions on so-called sex crimes set a forbidding evidentiary bar: Depending on the school of interpretation, a guilty verdict usually requires eyewitness testimony from two or four adult males. The obvious intent was to make convictions difficult; in an honor-based society, accusations of sexual misconduct led to disruptive family feuds. The laws thus had limited reach. A man seeking to have sex with men would fare far more safely under "classical" Sharia than under the laws of Uganda — or, for that matter, New York.

Image Credit: AP. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed Uganda's harsh anti-gay bill in to law earlier this year.

Yet a woman seeking justice after a sexual assault would find Sharia impossibly weighted against her. The honor-based essence of the laws reaffirmed women's bodies as patriarchal property. To say that Sharia isn't an "anti-gay" barbarism shouldn't obscure another fact: Women are vastly more likely than gay men to suffer from its imposition.

How does Sharia work today? It's changed. For one thing, most countries recognizing a version of Sharia embody it in legal codes. Codified law, alien to the interpretive spirit of "classical" Sharia, eliminates flexibility in applying its principles.

Moreover, Sharia criminal provisions have been wedded to the modern state's police powers. Requiring eyewitnesses means something different when cop cars roam streets and a surveillance industry wiretaps homes and trawls the Internet.

And Sharia has become a political tool. Previously, the law was in the hands of scholars and courts often working outside state control. Populations saw it as independent, often oppositional. Now governments compete to embrace — and manipulate — versions of Islamic law, using it to show their moral credentials while forcing it under their supervision.

Enter the Sultan of Brunei. The Syariah criminal code is a blatant political move to reclaim his regime's religious credibility. Its impact on LGBT people's rights is likely to be small. The new code will co-exist with the current penal code inherited from the British — whether religious or secular courts will have jurisdiction in specific cases is up for negotiation. Brunei already punishes homosexual acts with 10 years' imprisonment under its colonial-era law. Probably (as in Pakistan, which also formally embraced Sharia years ago) most gay cases will be tried under that provision, because proof is easier. The Syariah code will be a looming threat, but not an imminent danger.

But it will be different for women, as the law controls even their appearance and movements. For instance, women who violate Syariah dress-code provisions will face six months in prison and a $1,600 fine.

Here, then, is the question. Why are gay bloggers, Tweeters and groups like Human Rights Campaign hyping this as an "anti-gay" law? Obviously, because they haven't talked to anybody in Brunei or elsewhere in the region. They especially haven't consulted feminist groups in South and Southeast Asia who could clue them in on the impact of these laws. And they show no interest in building long-term coalitions with such movements — realistically, the only way to affect Brunei's politics and policy. They're interested in publicity and the satisfaction of speaking their minds. That's not change. That's catharsis.

Image Credit: Getty Images. Jay Leno leads a protest outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Brunei is a rich country. Boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel won't damage its budget. When U.S. politicians demand that Bolkiah sell the hotel, who does that benefit? The sale wouldn't hurt the Sultan — he’d make a bundle; nor would it help Brunei's gays. On the other hand, there's nothing nicer than feeling morally superior because you passed up an expensive lunch.

It's clear that the Human Rights Campaign and other U.S. gay activists still haven't learned the importance of alliances, a blindness doubly alarming when projected onto an international scale. The current fetish for fast results and clicktivism only feeds into this. A quick boycott threat might bring down a Firefox CEO in a few days, but political change across continents takes patience and persistence and hard work, not hashtags.

Indifference to the broader issues at stake, to the fate of women in Brunei and to the work of feminists throughout the region, is disgraceful. It endangers LGBT Bruneians by turning the dispute over the Syariah code into a battle solely of "the Sultan vs. the gays." It damages regional women's movements by relegating their campaigns again to silence. This isn't international solidarity: It's international solipsism.

To read more of Scott Long's work, check out "A Paper Bird", his blog on sex and rights around the world.