The Sultan of Brunei and the Effects of Sharia Law in Southeast Asia

Current Events

Last year Hassanal Bolikah, the Sultan of Brunei, made headlines when he made the startling announcement that he would impose sharia law (in three phases) in his Southeast Asian sultanate.

The first phase of sharia law, which includes fines and prison sentences for ‘crimes’ such as pregnancies outside of wedlock, propagating religions other than Islam, and not attending mandatory Friday prayers, was rolled out last year. The second phase introducing harsh punishments such as floggings and cutting off hands for property offenses is currently being implemented.

The third and final phase, which will be implemented in late 2015 or early 2016, will introduce executions, including stoning, for offenses like adultery, abortion, homosexuality/sodomy, and even blasphemy.

With the exception of a handful of U.S. Congress members endeavoring to remove Brunei as a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and some celebrities protesting and calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel owned by the Sultan, the United States and many other countries who are struggling to combat the rise of radical Islam have remained inexcusably reticent regarding this disconcerting development.

Perhaps they are simply unable to comprehend why a tiny country the size of Delaware experimenting with sharia law in a region that has long been celebrated for practicing a more moderate form of Islam is important.

By now it is axiomatic that successfully combating the global rise of radical Islam will not be possible sans support from the world’s moderate Muslims. The fact that approximately 25% of the world’s Muslim population lives in Southeast Asia combined with the acknowledgment that these Muslims are still relatively moderate and labile, it should be clear why more eyebrows should have been raised when Brunei announced that it would become the first country in East Asia to implement sharia law.

One can only hope that the move will act as a critical wake up call to the West that radical Islam is growing throughout this vital region by the hour. Indeed, only two years have passed since PEW Research Center released a comprehensive report demonstrating how 72% of Indonesian Muslims and 86% of Malaysian Muslims want sharia law to be the law of the land. Since then, calls for the establishment of a caliphate and sharia have only grown louder with the rise of the Islamic State.

Currently, more than 60 Malaysians are waging jihad in Iraq and Syria while countless more continue to be arrested in transit. Furthermore, Indonesia, a country with more Muslims than the entire Middle East, has seen hundreds of its citizens abscond to fight in Syria and Iraq while others try to establish a caliphate and sharia law at home. In fact, the Jakarta Globe recently reported that 1 in 14 high school students in Indonesia support the Islamic State.

At first glance, Bolikah’s decision may have seemed baffling considering he’s not a particularly pious man (his lavish and licentious lifestyle was most recently documented by 60 Minutes), but closer examination reveals that his decision reflects the growing calls for sharia law not only in the region, but throughout the world.

The rhetoric Bolikah uses in explaining how his decision was to simply “obey Allah’s command as written in the Quran” is indisputably meant to serve as a magnet for much needed foreign direct investment from countries throughout the world who believe in the divinity of sharia law. That appears to be the Sultan’s strategy in attempting to achieve the nation’s long-term plan, Wawasan Brunei 2035, which seeks to transmogrify Brunei into a type of ‘Islamic-Singapore’.

Only forty years have passed since the U.S. last deemed Southeast Asia such a critical region that nearly 60,000 American troops died endeavoring to stop communism from spreading to this part of the world. Back then, the fear was that the fall of one country would engender a ‘Domino Effect’, leading to several other countries in the region to succumb to communism.

Now, as radical Islam propagates throughout Southeast Asia, Brunei could have very well set a domino effect in motion as a northern state in Malaysia passed amendments to implement the Islamic penal code and parties in Indonesia have proposed a nationwide ban on alcohol since Bolikah’s announcement.

Although the ideologies are not the same, we should all be just as concerned about the domino effect in Southeast Asia today as Dwight D. Eisenhower was four decades ago. The leaders of all countries who oppose radical Islam and wish to see its extenuation and eventual cessation must implement more policies and initiatives in Southeast Asia that focus on steering susceptible youths away from radical and violent ideologies while assisting and pressuring these governments to do more about ensuring secularism and human rights prevail.

Brunei is the first country in East Asia to implement sharia law and it must be a top priority for world leaders to ensure that it is the last.

Bill Ozanick a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (class of 2017) in Washington, DC, focused on International Relations and Southeast Asia Studies. He lived in Southeast Asia for nearly four years (2010-2014) where he consulted for various companies and governments in the region. He has written opinion pieces for The Malaysian Insider, The Clarion Project, and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be followed on Twitter @BillOzanick.

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