Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes during National Day celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, February 24, 2018.  Photo: Reuters/Ahim Rani
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salutes during National Day celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, February 24, 2018. Photo: Twitter

There has been no shortage of invective directed at Brunei’s decision this month to introduce far more tyrannical punishments under its Islamic legal system. Sharia was first introduced in 2014 by Brunei’s absolute monarch, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, but has now been augmented in its final phase so that homosexual sex between men and adultery can be punished by death, including by stoning, while lesbians will receive lashes and thieves can have their limbs cut off. It might appear an archaic word, but these archaic punishments can only be described as barbaric.

Within the many diatribes, a conspicuous phrase has popped up again and again: to “burnish one’s Islamic credentials.” The Guardian, in a report published on April 3, stated that “analysts say [Sultan Bolkiah] is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials and shore up support among the country’s conservatives due to the waning fortunes of the oil-dependent economy, which has been ravaged by recession in recent years.” A report from Agence France-Presse, published a day earlier, reads that the sultan “is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials among conservative supporters.” Shinta Eka Puspasari, an analyst at Concord Consulting Jakarta, only slightly went off script when he stated that the new law is designed to “strengthen Bolkiah’s Islamic credentials and popularity among his people.”

A swift search on Google finds that this bon mot has been used at least a dozen times to describe government policy in Malaysia (by both the former and new government) and Indonesia, while it’s more frequently used to refer to politics in Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East – pretty much every Muslim-majority nation, actually, and even those with vocal Muslim minorities. It also crops up in academic works, such as Eric O Hanson’s Religion and Politics in the International System Today, and at least three dozen other books.

I have used this phrase myself on occasion, though now looking back it seems that I never really gave much thought as to why. Quite clearly, it’s a rather lissom phrase to describe a politician who adopts a far more extreme position on religious matters in order to win support from the public – indeed, it denotes both opportunism and populism at the same time. But its meaning is more profound. The word “burnish” is rather obvious, meaning to polish something to make it shinier: shiny because of the politician’s apparent dulled image on Islamic issues, and shiny because his policies are appealing to the public at large.

Now comes the more tricky part: What is actually meant by “Islamic credentials”? In almost all the contexts this phrase is used in, it denotes the imposition of a far more radical notion of Islamic law on to a society. However, the purveyor of this phrase often enters the realm of euphemism. Both The Guardian and AFP reports, as well as other articles on the same issue, contend that Brunei’s sultan is ramping up sharia punishments to appease “conservatives” or his “conservative supporters.” A Southeast Asia Globe report states that “the move marks a transition to a more conservative form of Islam in the country.”

But is “conservative” a fair adjective for someone who supports the stoning to death of homosexuals and adulterers? Doesn’t it appear that “conservative” is being used not as an actual indicator of a position but as a euphemism – or as a lazy qualifier? A journalist is supposed to be a caretaker of semantics, after all, so isn’t it more fair to say that rather than being a “conservative” the person who supports stoning to death is actually a “radical” or “extremist” – or, in the case of religion, a “literalist”?

For some context, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2013 found that 72% of Indonesian and 86% of Malaysian respondents said they wanted sharia to be the national law (which it isn’t) and, of those, some 60% from Malaysia and 48% from Indonesia thought stoning to death was an appropriate penalty for adultery.

What one finds, then, is that whenever “to burnish one’s Islamic credentials” is employed, it is used to denote an extreme position on Islamic law, typically to do with sexual behavior or free speech. It’s almost never used in more trifling contexts. Indeed, Brunei’s sultan didn’t “burnish his Islamic credentials” by investing more money into Islamic banking or, in reverse, by cracking down on riba (usury). Nor did he do so by taking a strong, vocal stance against how China is locking up members of its Muslim minority in re-education camps by the hundreds of thousands, which has sparked concerns about ethnic cleansing. (We’ve hardly heard a peep from Islamist politicians in Asia about it.) “This selective implementation of the most draconian aspects of the Sharia, particularly upon an already oppressed and repressed queer Malay-Muslim minority[,] only shows that Brunei is closer to ISIS than to the Prophet,” writes Azfar B Anwar, an Islamic studies and history student at the University of Oxford.

But pay attention to the deeper meaning of the phrase. It’s supposed to denote a populist measure, usually one introduced to distract public attention away from some other problem – economic stagnation in Brunei’s case. Or, a corollary, as a populist measure supposed to win a politician support from the majority of the public. Yet in both senses it would indicate that such measures are popular, perhaps even with a significant section of society. Indeed, would Brunei’s sultan have introduced a law for the stoning to death of homosexuals unless he knew it would chime well with the majority of the country? If all of this is merely an attempt by a politician to “burnish” his appeal vis-à-vis his public perception, even his opportunism is a sign that such measures are desired by the public.

“On the ground, young Bruneians say they are less scared of being prosecuted under the new laws than of how they might embolden religious conservatives, and justify acts of hate against them,” reported The Guardian on April 6. The article also featured an interview with a young homosexual man who said: “I am not really scared about the law, but I am scared about the people.… The implementation gives a lot of conservative people who are very homophobic a lot of power. It is more dangerous for people like me to go out now.”

So what are we left to think? For most commentators, the fallout of Brunei’s new policies has been laid squarely at the feet of the sultan (including by some celebrities who can only think of boycotting the luxury hotels he owns as a way to respond). But if the sultan has done this for populist and opportunistic reasons, as almost all analysts say he has, shouldn’t some of the fault be shared by the Brunei public itself, who the sultan clearly thinks support the measures? Isn’t it more a reflection on Brunei society than the sultan himself?

What “to burnish one’s Islamic credentials” reveals, then, is not just a populist, opportunistic move by a politician, but also a desire for the significant section of the population for such extreme laws. Take it one step further: If one accepts that stoning to death for homosexuality is a populist policy introduced by sultan, then one must ask why it has only now been introduced. Indeed, up until now, Bolkiah actually resisted the introduction of a tyrannical law that is apparently popular with the majority of the public (until, of course, it became politically convenient for him to do so).

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