Hollywood's snub of Brunei-owned hotels over sharia law: Will it backfire?

Brunei's move to adopt a sharia-compliant penal code set off protests at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air. But Hollywood protests may serve only to shore up the sultan's credibility at home, analysts say.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
People protest outside the Beverly Hills Hotel,owned by the sultan of Brunei, over Brunei's strict sharia law penal code in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Monday. The sultanate of Brunei in April became the first East Asian country to introduce Islamic criminal law.

As Hollywood celebrities join protests against the imposition of sharia criminal law in the tiny nation of Brunei, scholars and activists alike hope that this becomes more than just another “selfie” moment for high-profile glitterati.

Jay and Mavis Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Maria Shriver, and Sharon Osborne, among others, are part of a parade of sponsors and hosts who are canceling their event reservations at the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in protest. The Beverly Hills City Council even scheduled a vote Tuesday night on a resolution condemning criminal punishments such as flogging, stoning, and severing of limbs.

But as famous folks voice their disapproval outside the legendary hotel on Sunset Boulevard, with national media and local reporters swarming for quotes, the question inevitably arises: Just how effective is all this big-name activism?

Without understanding of the motives behind the sultan’s move, the protest movement could actually be counterproductive, says Kecia Ali, associate professor of religion at Boston University.

“Keep in mind that if the purpose of this law is to bolster his credibility [at home] by surrounding himself with the aura of religious legitimacy, then doing it in the face of Western outrage,” particularly from Hollywood figures often perceived as the epitome of Western decadence, is only going to help confirm that he is doing the right thing, she says.

Indeed, in announcing the decree, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – one of the world's wealthiest men, with an estimated $20 billion fortune – called his measures a "firewall" against globalization.”

The initial phase, which began May 1, brings fines or jail for indecent behavior, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and failure to attend Friday prayers.

The next phase, for such crimes as theft and robbery, is to come later this year and will involve tougher penalties, such as the severing of limbs and flogging.

In 2015, punishments such as stoning for sodomy and adultery will be introduced. In explaining his decision, the sultan added that the move is "a must" under Islam.

While the West recoils against such announcements, Professor Ali says there is, in fact, no single fixed body of Islamic justice called sharia law.

“Sharia is a term that gets tossed around a lot,” she says, noting that it does have a basic meaning that has to do with God’s revealed law for humanity. “But that is a very big theoretical construct,” says Ali, adding that in 1,400 years of Muslim history, it has never been identified with a finite body of specific laws incumbent on a government to implement.

In fact, the oil-rich nation has long had sharia-compliant codes governing institutions such as marriage and inheritance law.

Nonetheless, the new penal code has drawn widespread criticism far beyond Hollywood. Brunei is the first East or Southeast Asian country to bring in a national penal code based on sharia law. Noting that women often suffered the most for crimes involving sexual behavior, the UN human rights office said it is deeply concerned about the new measures.

"It's a return to medieval punishment," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Agence France Presse last week. "It's a huge step back for human rights in Brunei and totally out of step with the 21st century."

Los Angeles residents whose events are being moved from the historic pink Beverly Hills Hotel say they agree with the decision. “I’m proud of the organization,” says Nathalie Miller, director of admissions for Berkeley Hall School, a private elementary school in Bel Air. The school is a member of the Independent School Alliance for Minority Affairs, which pulled Tuesday evening's awards gala. The event will proceed at the nearby Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire.

But whether such moves will have any real effect is doubtful, says Catherine Warrick, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “It's unlikely that the sultan would change course on his legal plans in response to Western activism.”

Hundreds of hotel employees are likely to be more injured than the sultan is by a loss of hotel revenues, she notes. Brunei has a healthy economy with a higher per capita GDP than the United States, she says. “It's an oil- and natural-gas-producing country, and the sultan himself has an enormous personal fortune, so he's not particularly vulnerable."

Losing money at his hotels is to the sultan as flies are to elephants – easily brushed off with the swish of the trunk, says Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman.

On the other hand, she adds via e-mail, “he bought fancy hotels so that he could boast of owning the watering holes of celebrities, so their protests might well wound his ego.” 

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