Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Brunei: When Sharia Meets Social Media

The Sultanate’s Sharia law sparked criticism abroad – and at home, where dissent is not often tolerated.

By Asif Ullah Khan for
Brunei: When Sharia Meets Social Media

Brunei’s Muslim students wait along a road site with national flags in hands to welcome the sultan for his 60th birthday parade in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, July. 15, 2006.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Discussions on Reddit Brunei are back to normal. People are discussing Tiger Woods’ first Masters title after a drought of 14 years or Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Chelsea. A few weeks ago, almost all posts and discussions were about Brunei’s Sharia law. The same story was playing out on other social media platforms.

Two things clearly emerged from the raging debate on Brunei’s decision to implement Sharia, which prescribes penalties such as the amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery and homosexuality. First, the advent of the internet has made any kind of curbs on free speech and dissent more difficult. This has been amply proved by the Bruneian youth, who openly aired their views over the controversial move.

Second, the more surprising and refreshing aspect was that many members of the LGBT community shared their views on social media without hiding their identity. The first off the blocks was a Zumba instructor named Nasroul Hizam, who wrote a long post on his Facebook wall titled “The Gay Agenda?” Surprisingly, it was removed by Facebook, with the explanation that it does not follow the social media network’s “community standards.” “We remove posts that attack people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender and disability,” read the Facebook notice. This triggered a deluge of comments from Bruneians in support of Nasroul and many started reposting it on their wall. Even, Nasroul, who has worked as a journalist, blasted Facebook saying, “This is not only insulting to my writing abilities and experience as a journalist, this is an act against the freedom to express and speak up on a public platform. I had nothing but positivity for the issue and yet irresponsible posts from foreign media continue to go unnoticed.”

Even Aleem Bolkiah, a member of the Brunei royal family, wrote on his Instagram that despite not being a member of LGBT community, he has friends who are and they are some of the nicest people he has ever met. He said no one should be judged or punished for living the life they want to live.

It’s common knowledge that Brunei is a monarchy and any kind of dissent or disagreement with government policy is not tolerated. But in this case the government ordered no crackdown. On the contrary, Brunei’s foreign minister, II Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof, wrote a long letter to special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council clarifying that new Sharia penal code neither criminalizes nor has the intention of victimizing any person based on their sexual orientation or belief, including same-sex relations. The reconciliatory tone of the Bruneian foreign minister’s letter and tolerance of dissent with the government policy on this issue shows that the Brunei government has gauged the sentiment of the public and may ask the law enforcement authorities to not touch this issue.

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A former Brunei Times journalist said that he was not surprised at all by the attitude of the Bruneian government for two reasons. First, he debunks the theory that the Sultan of Brunei has implemented this law to consolidate his grip on power. “The government has all the power it can have,” he said.

Second, he argued that foreign critics have misconstrued the Sharia law. They think it’s being implemented specifically to target members of LBGT community, he explained, but that is not the case. Brunei has no history of hate crimes against the LBGT community, unlike other countries. They can be seen in cafes and restaurants like before. Many are devout Muslims, who offer prayers regularly at public mosques — unlike Indonesia, where many LBGT individuals find it hard to pray at ordinary mosques because of hostile reactions from other congregants. “We are not the Taliban,” the journalist added.

Nasroul also concurs with this view. He says he is neither worried nor scared for two reasons. First, the actual execution of Sharia law is incredibly difficult as it requires credible and reliable witnesses.

Second, and more importantly, unlike Indonesia where there is a greater degree of vigilantism against the LBGT community, Brunei has none.

“Contrary to Western backlash, we’ve had zero gaybashing ever,” Nasroul said. “The number of hate crimes against the LGBT community in the USA, for example, is atrocious!”

He added, “The reality is that despite what the foreign media has been reporting (quoting the same three people repeatedly), Brunei remains quiet and as sleepy as it has always been.”

However, that’s not to say there was no reaction to the new laws. The power of social media pushed laidback Bruneians out of their comfortable cocoons and saw them pound the keyboards like never before. On the issue of young Bruneians speaking openly on such a sensitive subject, the former Brunei Times journalist says in this regard his former paper (now defunct) played a great role in changing the attitude of the people of Brunei, especially youth. “The girls and boys, who were educated in Australia, U.K., the U.S., were pushing the envelope much to the discomfiture of the authorities,” he said, adding that now with so many outlets available, Bruneians are not afraid to air their views on social issues.

Another journalist, who does not want to be named, said: “I think social media has definitely created a culture where people are more accustomed to speaking out, but when it comes to Sharia, I think people have been quite conservative. I think as long as you’re not being overly critical about Sharia then the authorities are not gonna clamp down.”

“I think because the law is not persecuting LGBT individuals, but rather the sexual act (which let’s face it, can actually be carried out by homosexual and heterosexual couples), some might be braver than others to speak openly,” he added. In his mind, the point is that Brunei did not pass a law against homosexuality specifically; it’s a law against a sexual act that is often carried out between homosexual men. But obviously people tend to conflate sodomy with homosexuality.

However, what tends to worry this journalist is the narrative that people are using to defend the law, like the arguments above that “Brunei has no history of hate crimes against LGBT community” or “the burden of proof is really high.” He thinks it’s everyone’s way of comforting themselves. “I also think it’s naive and complacent to assume that they’ll never put this law into practice… no one wants to believe that Brunei might be changing.”

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Singapore-based Syed Khalid Husain, a senior journalist and writer on Islamic affairs thinks that “the implementation of the Sharia law shouldn’t be difficult or even challenging for Brunei as there is hardly any resistance to government policies there. Brunei already enforces Islamic laws and teachings more strictly than Malaysia and Indonesia without any opposition from any quarter. The sale of alcohol is banned and evangelism by other religions is forbidden. Even if there is any discontent, it is assuaged with generous government polices including zero taxes, subsidized housing, and free healthcare and education!”

Given the international media onslaught and power of social media, the Bruneian government is treading cautiously on its new Sharia laws. This is the reason why there has not been a government crackdown, on social media or otherwise. However, the Bruneian youth, who are pushing the envelope a little further by discussing issues which were earlier considered taboo, have also very smartly avoiding directly attacking either Sharia law or the government. If they push still further, the government response is an open question.

Asif Ullah Khan is a long-time journalist who has worked for The Time of India, Khaleej Times, and The Brunei Times.