How should we react to Sharia?

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Photo: Getty Images
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Photo: Getty Images
It's not often Brunei makes the news in New Zealand but it has done so over the past few weeks - and not for pleasant reasons.

The tiny country, occupying two small slivers of the island of Borneo, is one of the world's wealthiest thanks to its plentiful oil and gas reserves. It has had a long association with the United Kingdom and maintains high standards of living.

So far, so attractive. But its prominence in the news recently has stemmed from a tranche of its sharia penal laws becoming active last week. The laws in question were passed several years ago but have not come into effect until now.

Brunei is an Islamic nation and the majority of its 430,000 residents are Muslims. The country's leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, introduced sharia alongside the country's common law in 2014.

Under Brunei's sharia system, consequences which seem brutal to us in New Zealand can be meted out for "crimes" we would consider to not be crimes at all. And now, some of those "crimes", including gay sex, are punishable by death by stoning.

Such rulings seem so far from reasonable to New Zealanders, but it must be kept in mind sharia laws exist to ensure the upkeep of religious expectations in a deeply religious state. We should also keep in mind such adherence to religious rules is not uncommon around the world.

Of note in this case, though, are the celebrity calls for protest and boycotts. George Clooney, Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres and more have publicly announced their disgust and suggested tangible courses of action as forms of protest.

Such protest is entirely reasonable. After all, the idea someone should be stoned to death because they were born with a sexual orientation not tolerated by a given religion is anathema to most of us.

It is also reasonable individuals make spending choices based on such factors. For many, price or convenience are not the only factors when spending is considered, and such a mindset certainly has the capacity to encourage change.

But wholesale criticism of Brunei is nevertheless a complicated matter. It is not the only country with brutal sharia laws. Nor is it the only country engaging in what most Westerners would describe as human rights violations.

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many others have cases to answer, too. As recently as last century, lynching still occurred in the United States. In this country, treatment of our indigenous population without doubt fell well short of current human rights expectations.

We still trade with, visit, encourage tourism from and generally accept many countries with different views on human rights than our own. We classify abhorrent occurrences from recent history as if not forgivable then certainly understandable, given the cultures of the time.

We accept, or at least endeavour to, religions which differ from our own beliefs. And we accept different countries hold those religious beliefs as central to their identities and their laws.

How, then, should we react when countries pass laws as far from our own ideals as Brunei's form of sharia?

How do we, on the one hand, try to understand a religion central to the lives of many New Zealanders - and one so horrifically targeted by hate so recently - while on the other protest a nation's adherence to an extreme, but not uncommon, version of that same religion?

What Brunei is doing is, to most of us, wrong. Protesting, either publicly or privately is, in such cases, both right and our right. But we should endeavour to accept such things are complicated. Brunei's sharia is not the country's defining feature, nor does it define our relationship with Brunei, nor does sharia define Islam.

In our new age of lost innocence, let's take every opportunity to inform ourselves of complexity, before we jump, rightly or wrongly, to conclusions.


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