How Islamic does Brunei want to be?

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Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes the royal guard of honor during his 65th birthday celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan. Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani

When Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah first indicated in 2014 his oil-rich sultanate planned to implement sharia law, the announcement stirred waves of controversy, with Hollywood stars and rights activists calling for a boycott of the luxury Beverly Hills hotel owned by his sovereign wealth fund.

Four years on, however, the Muslim majority Southeast Asian state has yet to fully implement the harshest elements of the Islamic criminal code, including amputation or even execution for theft, apostasy, adultery and the deemed offense of sodomy.

While Hassanal, who rules as absolute monarch, prime minister and head of state religion, continues to call for the full implementation of sharia law, there has been little public explanation for the delay.

That’s led to certain speculation the sultanate is sensitive to outside perceptions, particularly as the nation courts more foreign investment – including from China – to help diversify its long dependence on energy revenues amid fast depleting supplies.

While nearby Malaysia and Indonesia also enforce laws that exclusively govern the conduct of Muslims, Brunei would be the first East Asian country to adopt strict sharia law at the national level.

Though some netizens had questioned or opposed the proposed Islamic legal code on social media when first announced, most people in the conservative sultanate are believed to support sharia legislation as an expression of religious and national identity.

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (3rd R, in blue) recites the Koran during State Prayers asking for the protection and security of Palestine and its people, at the Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah state mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan July 14, 2014. REUTERS/Ahim Rani (BRUNEI - Tags: RELIGION POLITICS) - RTR3YLH8

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (3rd R, in blue) recites the Koran during State Prayers, Bandar Seri Begawan, July 14, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani

The sultan, judging by his public speeches, views expressions of religiosity as a check on the Western influence of the internet and globalization broadly.

Though no organized opposition group has ever openly challenged the state’s religious stance, some observers believe the laws aim to placate Islamists who may otherwise be put off by the monarchy’s ostentatious displays of wealth.

Some analysts regard Brunei’s adoption of sharia law as a bid to attract more investment from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Situated between Asia’s largest Muslim majority countries, Brunei has long sought to become a regional hub for Islamic banking, finance and services.

While there is no evidence to suggest that sharia law influences the investment decisions of GCC countries, harsher Islamic laws would put Brunei’s legal and religious strictures closer in sync with Saudi Arabia and others.

In March last year, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud became the first Saudi monarch to visit Brunei. The brief appearance of the Saudi royal, who claims religious guardianship as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, served to affirm the sultan’s own religious position and legitimacy.

While the introduction of sharia law may have sullied perceptions of Brunei in the West, China has moved to become the sultanate’s largest foreign investor in recent years. The Bank of China (BOC) established a branch in Brunei in 2016 to facilitate FDI, including ventures related to its global Belt and Road Initiative.

Major Chinese investments include the Muara Besar refinery and petrochemical complex, currently being built by China’s Hengyi Industries International Pte Ltd. The venture has employed thousands of Chinese construction workers in the sultanate.

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing November 11, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (L) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping, Beijing, November 11, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Beijing’s investments in Brunei’s shipping, telecommunications and agriculture sectors, currently estimated at around US$4.1 billion and growing, have set the stage for Bandar Seri Begawan to become a regional outpost for Chinese businesses.

Chinese nationals and business people, however, could be reluctant to live under the punitive measures associated with sharia law. It remains to be seen whether the full implementation of Islamic law in Brunei complicates relations with China or deters private investment.

Sharia demands a high evidentiary burden of proof, such as the requirement of four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning, which would make cases of capital punishment rare.

Brunei’s legal system is based on British common law with a parallel sharia law system for Muslims that had largely governed custody rights and marital matters. Sharia’s jurisdiction was broadened in 2014 to include criminal law.

The first phase of the new penal code covers cases generally punishable by fines or imprisonment. The subsequent phases have yet to be implemented. Some reports attribute the delay to challenges faced by the country’s Kafkaesque religious bureaucracy.

The implementation of full sharia law can only take effect following the gazetting of a Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), a document articulating all rules and prosecutions associated with sharia as a guide for their implementation.

Brunei’s ruler has publicaly lambasted the country’s religious affairs ministry, which is tasked with drafting the CPC, for the delays. Hassanal lamented how the CPC draft process seemed to “drag on without completion” in remarks to local media in 2016.

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah speaks during an Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha - RTSRK1X

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah speaks during an Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, October 10, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

“The challenges of fundamentally transforming judicial and enforcement structures may have been underestimated,” writes Dominik Müller, a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Islamic Legal Studies Program.

The sultan’s “public criticism against the CPC’s slow finalization exemplifies how in the absence of an opposition or independent civil society, he plays that role now as well,” he says, noting, “the Sultan is his government’s sharpest critic.”

A draft of the sharia CPC was recently announced for gazetting in lieu of last month’s Legislative Council, the country’s annual session of parliament, indicating a possible end to the ongoing legal impasse.

The second phase is slated to take effect 12 months after the CPC’s enactment, while the third and final phase will begin after 24 months. Barring any further delays, this would put Brunei on track to fully enforce sharia law by 2020, four years later than first envisaged.

Non-Muslims comprise some 21.2% of Brunei’s population, according to US Central Intelligence Agency statistics, while 65.7% are ethnic Malays who practice Islam.

Though ethnic and religious minorities in Brunei generally refrain from open dissent, some hold private reservations about harsher forms of sharia law due to human rights concerns and impacts on commercial activity.

All restaurants in Brunei, including Chinese restaurants and those catering to non-Muslims, are required to close during Friday prayers and are limited to providing take-away services to adhere to fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Regulations restricting traditional Chinese lion dance performances have also come into effect. Public celebrations of Christmas have been curbed since 2014, when the new penal code’s first phase first came into force.

fruits and fegetable at the market in the city of Bandar seri Begawan in the country of Brunei Darussalam on Borneo in Southeastasia.

Vendors at a market in Bandar seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Brunei’s sharia courts say the number of filed cases in 2017 had dropped to 148 from 259 in 2016. Around 66% of sharia offenses pertain to khalwat, or intimate contact between unmarried couples.

Hassanal, 71, marked 50 years in power last October with a golden jubilee procession through the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. The sultan’s advocacy of Islamic criminal law has prompted observers to question why such measures had not been introduced in the earlier years of his reign.

Most interpret the move as a means of legitimizing the monarchy’s political power amid sluggish economic growth and dwindling oil and gas reserves threaten the sultanate’s high standard of living.

An eventual succession will see Brunei’s Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah take the throne as the next sultan. The prince has characterized Brunei’s sharia compliance as a “competitive edge” in efforts to transform the sultanate into an Islamic finance hub.

Only a small number of governments have actually implemented the sort of punishments that Brunei has in mind, says Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist and Islamic reform activist.

“Ruling elites in certain Muslim countries champion certain forms of punishment such as amputations and the like which resonate with the masses’ understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of Islam,” Chandra says.

“They do not want to emphasize the essence of the faith such as accountability and human dignity, which may undermine their own position.”

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