- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Typically, the imposition of sharia law in a distant land doesn’t make much of a splash in Hollywood. But in the case of Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich country whose overseas investments include California landmarks like the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel Air, the imposition of a law mandating the death penalty for gay sex is riling Hollywood elites.
On Wednesday, the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, officially rolled out a harsh new penal code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, making Brunei the first country in East Asia to make sharia a formal part of its legal system. The first phase of the new law took effect Thursday and mandates fines and jail terms for "general" offenses such as failing to pray on Fridays, getting pregnant out of wedlock, and cross-dressing. The second phase of the law, which will be implemented a year from now, will cover crimes punishable by flogging and amputation, such as theft. And one year after that, the third phase will kick in, which will include all offenses punishable by death — including consensual gay sex. Before the new law, the death penalty wasn’t on the books, and while homesexual relationships were illegal, they were punishable by jail time.
Though certainly not the first nation to impose a legal system based on sharia law, Brunei’s is the most draconian in the region. While Malaysia and Indonesia also observe Islamic law to some extent, neither country imposes it upon all citizens. Rather, sharia law is usually enforced by religious courts at a local level and, for the most part, penalties are not so severe. Brunei ups the ante by subjecting all of its 400,000 citizens, regardless of faith, to a religious code with the most severe penalties in the region.
That alone probably wouldn’t be enough to land Brunei in Hollywood’s crosshairs. But it just so happens that this tiny country, about the size of Rhode Island and nestled in a corner of Borneo, happens to own some of Hollywood’s favorite breakfast spots. The country boasts a significant portfolio of foreign businesses like the Dorchester Collection, a luxury hotel chain that owns several famed Los Angeles landmarks.
That connection is, evidently, why a handful of Hollywood celebrities and aristocrats are suddenly feeling very invested in Brunei’s state policies. Some of those very important people staged a small demonstration in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel on Saturday, protesting Brunei’s sharia law with signs that read "The Beverly Hills Hotel = DEATH," and calling for a boycott of all Dorchester hotels. Stephen Fry and Ellen Degeneres are both on board. Last week, Degeneres slammed the law on Twitter and pledged to stay away from Brunei’s hotels:
I won’t be visiting the Hotel Bel-Air or the Beverly Hills Hotel until this is resolved. http://t.co/RqQrLBK4EJ
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) April 22, 2014
Human rights groups are not happy, either. Amnesty International and the United Nations quickly condemned the law, noting that Brunei’s human rights record will come under review by the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, a day after the law went into effect.
Back in Brunei, the Sultan noted during his announcement on Wednesday that he doesn’t expect foreigners to understand or agree with the law, as long as they respect Brunei’s cultural differences. "[The law] was not made on a mere whim," he said, "but rather based on the policy of adhering to the command of Allah."
But what happens if angry celebs actually manage to hurt Dorchester’s bottom line? Probably not much. The sultan is one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth of $20 billion. If it comes down to it, he can just sell part of his $4 billion car collection (who needs 7,000 cars, anyway?) or rent out some of the 1,800 rooms in his Brunei palace.