Brunei’s “Homosexuality Law” and (Successful?) Social Media Dissent under Authoritarianism

Brunei has come under increased international scrutiny over its “homosexuality law,” or restrictions on homosexuality and adultery, which were to be punishable by death.

An article from The Diplomat expresses surprise at the social media response, namely Bruneian dissent expressed online. This is come both from LGBT+ individuals in Brunei and fellow citizens concerned for their rights.

This is not as surprising to me. Living in China, I was active on social media, which was supposed to be heavily monitored. With Facebook, Twitter, and other western platforms being blocked in China, it is often presumed that any national alternative will only serve government interests. And that is likely what the government would like. Despite this, I was study patterns of political dissent online and had no shortage of material. While people have been persecuted for what they post online, the most common repercussion was having a post deleted by the social media platform itself. In many nations, the number of social media posts are just too numerous for a relatively small number of government official to monitor, and they also lack the technological and cultural savviness to navigate online spaces and coded language. In such circumstances, LGBT individuals and their advocates may go public online with minimal risk. Others, of course, count the risk as worth it.

I am also not surprised by the level of support from non-LGBT Bruneian citizens. The government is an absolute monarchy with Sunni Islam as the state religion. The national constitute designates their sultan as the head of the state and of their national religion (Fox 2008). The government’s religious preferences are enforced through multiple spheres of society, and execution for homosexuality and adultery was explicitly expressed to be in line with this. This creates what Fenggang Yang (2006; 2011) has called a religious “red market.” One of the characteristics of a religious red market is that sincere religious believers are turned away from what is offered by the state. The basic mechanism is that the worldly nature of the fallible state taints the perceived pure and spiritual nature of the religion. This pushes people into other religious “marketplaces,” which do not involve the state.

There is still cause for concern. Religious restrictions such as this are associated with religious and other forms of societal violence. The likely mechanism is that those who affiliate with the state religion see the state as on their side. They believe, often correctly, that their government will endorse them or look away if they target religious minorities or others targeted by state religious restrictions. One may note that similar mechanisms have been at play involving race, ethnicity, religion, and migration in the west. After the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and other far-right leaders throughout Europe, hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and other targeted groups spiked. Victims have reported hearing, and perpetrators have been caught saying, things along the lines of “it’s our time now.” In these cases, people believe, again, often rightly so, that they can commit crimes against those targeted by the state with impunity.

It does appear that the social media activism may have been successful. Khan, writing for the Diplomat notes that no crackdowns were issued against the dissenters. Further, Brunei’s foreign minister has issued a statement suggesting that the new measures may not end up being enforced.

Diplomat, Asif Ullah Khan, The. n.d. “Brunei: When Sharia Meets Social Media.” The Diplomat. Retrieved May 3, 2019 (https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/brunei-when-sharia-meets-social-media/).

Fox, Jonathan. 2008. A World Survey of Religion and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yang, Fenggang. 2006. “The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China.” The Sociological Quarterly 47(1):93–122.

Yang, Fenggang. 2011. Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. Oxford University Press.

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