In our latest post, Professor Ann Black of the University of Queensland Australia writes about covenantal pluralism in Brunei. A country that derives its name from “Abode of Peace”, Black describes how the country’s policies are shaped by particular Islamic beliefs and the challenge they pose to religious minorities and peace with the “other”.
At first blush, a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation called a “Darussalam,” meaning “abode of peace,” would seem the natural home for “covenantal pluralism.” Covenantal pluralism is a philosophy calling for a legal system of equal rights and responsibilities, as well as a culture of mutual respect and engagement across lines of religious difference. However, this tiny Sultanate on the island of Borneo—with the second highest standard of living in Asia and a well-educated population—has from independence in 1984 had one goal: to establish a Brunei as a fully zikir state (one upholding Allah’s laws, with noble moral values).
Translating laws from divine sources is a human endeavour which required choices on exactly how Islam’s moral values should be applied today. Bruneian scholars could have drawn on Brunei’s’ prior centuries of pluralism, or the exemplar of Moghul Emperor Akbar. But instead they bypassed passages such as Quran 2:256: “there shall be no compulsion in religion,” and Quran 49:13 where it says Allah “created peoples and tribes so all may know one another,” to adopt a conservative version of Islam which is not inclusive of minorities nor tolerant of religious diversity. Brunei chose to strengthen only one culture: Malay. One religion: Islam. And one political authority: the Sultan. The ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB)—in English Malay, Islam, Monarchy—allows each ideological pillar to bolster the other. It has parallels with the South Asian nations discussed by Nilay Saiya, as Brunei too has successfully fused religion and state into one powerful, seemingly unassailable alliance.
Although there is no Quranic authority for rule by a monarch, the Sultan in his 64th birthday titah (royal speech announcing policy) created an analogous one. Beraja (absolute monarchy), he explained, is “God’s Will: not a choice, it is an anugerah (award or honour) from Allah (SWT).”
Brunei’s small area of 5,770 sq km, one percent of the island of Borneo, and a population of 450,000 may have allowed the country to escape world scrutiny. The international community appears unperturbed that this “abode of peace” has, since 1962, been in a perpetual state of emergency enabling Sultan Bolkiah to enact laws by emergency decree, suspend elections for 60 years, use censorship to silence criticism and limit debate, and to ban political parties. All of this happens without judicial oversight. Judicial review was abolished in 2004.
One exception was in 2019 with the coming into force of the Syariah Penal Code Order, which brought in executions for proven Syariah offences of apostasy, blasphemy, and homicide, with hudud penalties of stoning to death for adultery and same-sex intimacy. The swift condemnation of the latter by celebrities, governments, and international human rights bodies caused a momentary pause. The Sultan retreated a little. The Order was not repealed, nor sections amended, but the Sultan did announce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The media and high-profile critics moved on and Brunei was again safely out of the spotlight.
The Sultan and Brunei’s government claim exemptions from full commitment to international human rights covenants and from common law rule of law principles. Brunei’s government rejects civil and political rights for its own citizens and is neither a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Instead, they reference “human rights with the Quran as their foothold.” Article 3 of the Constitution contains one freedom, which is that religions other than Islam can be practised “in peace and harmony.” This however has not been interpreted expansively but is used to protect Muslims’ “harmony” from non-Muslim practices that might offend, confuse, or entice Muslims away from Islam. The civil courts lack jurisdiction to review the constitutionality of this interpretation.
Covenantal pluralism’s tenets of equal rights with a culture of reciprocal commitment to the “other” are at odds with MIB. Instead, religious criminal law is designed to shield Muslims from encounters with the “other.” In contrast to the nation’s da’wah propagation policy which promotes conversions to Islam, any proselytization for conversion from Islam is a criminal offence. Apostasy by a Muslim is a capital offence.
To ensure Muslims are not confused, there are restrictions on the religious practices of Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus with prohibitions on use of religious symbols, publications, photographs, words used, and practices. For example, any public displays of the holy days of other faiths such as Christmas (crosses, candles, singing carols, Christmas trees) risk five years imprisonment. Only Muslims can use the word “Allah” even though for four centuries it was used for God, the shared Abrahamic God, in Christian bibles and hymnals written in Malay language. There are other words listed in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution reserved exclusively for Muslim usage.
Muslims are in a privileged position, but only if they adhere to “Sunni Islam according to the Shafeite sect” (Constitution Art 2). The reasoning is that if all Bruneians follow Shafi’i doctrine it will unify, rather than divide the country. Brunei’s religious scholars decide the correct tenets and any “act done, or word uttered” by a Muslim contrary to their “Islam” becomes heresy. Shia Muslims, for example, are one of several Muslim minority sects labelled deviationists and heretics. Denying the authority of a particular hadith (a verified saying or practice of the Prophet) or an obligatory matter with ijma (consensus of Brunei’s jurists) is criminal conduct. This was apparent when an opinion letter-writer to the Brunei Times questioned whether stoning to death for adultery was necessary given that Quran 24:2 stated 100 lashes as the penalty. It resulted in a heresy charge.
To ensure compliance, from mosque, to school, to university, to the workplace, Muslims are taught only Brunei’s one patriarchal conservative brand of Islam. Liberal interpretations and notions of religious pluralism are not accepted. The Sultan says liberalism and pluralism “misguide” Muslims. The result is that Islam’s natural interpretive plurality is diminished. When the state imposes its singular view, Muslims cannot, as Abdullahi An-Na’im argued, freely choose to be the kind of Muslim they believe they should be.
Sultan Bolkiah Hassanal, Brunei’s 29th Sultan, appears much loved by his subjects. He speaks of a reciprocal bond ofSentiasa Bersama Rakyat (always together with his people) in which he claims to always act in their best interests and in return his subjects give him absolute loyalty. Certainly, the Sultan is greeted by adoring throngs whenever he ventures in public, and media, academia, officials, and Islamic scholars are unanimous in their praise of their “caring Monarch” and his “generosity.” This belies the extensive censorship regime which makes anything other than obsequious acclaim difficult. There is a raft of censoring legislation, including the Sedition Act which makes seditious any statement “derogatory of the Sultan, the Royal family, Islam, or MIB.” His rule gains legitimacy from the “I”—Islam in MIB. As head of Islam, he cannot be criticized, questioned, or disobeyed. To do so is to criticize, question, or disobey Islam and Allah.
As Nilay Saiya has documented, when a nation promotes hegemonic religious culture at the expense of religious minorities it can produce violent religious conflict. But Brunei has a trump card to play. Not only is the Sultan one of the wealthiest men in the world, but the nation’s wealth from oil is used to satisfy and subdue its people, who appear willing to trade rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, in exchange for personal material prosperity and communitarian affluence.
One can only wonder what Brunei, the Abode of Peace, would be like today if the inclusive, benevolent, tolerant ideology of Moghul Emperor Akbar had been adopted instead of MIB.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.