Why Is Hollywood So Upset About Brunei?

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:

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.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


The Bassem Sabry Reader

Egyptian Bassem Sabry did more in 31 years than many do in their lifetimes. He was a political analyst, an advisor to presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, and a part-time film producer. His voice surfaced in the blogging he did during Egypt's 2011 revolution. His writing, in English and Arabic, attempted to crystallize the ambitions and divisions of that political moment. His work stood out as a rare voice of moderation and conciliation, even at the country's most polarized moments.

Egypt remains just as chaotic and disorganized as it was when Sabry first started up his blog. Tragically, he will no longer be around to catalog the country's steps and stumbles. Sabry, 31, died on Tuesday after falling from a balcony in Cairo. While the circumstances of his fall remain unclear, friends said they believed he fell after losing consciousness for dietary reasons, perhaps related to his diabetes.

His sudden death has been met with an outpouring of shock and grief. While Egypt today is more politically polarized than at any point since the revolution, Sabry is being remembered by friends and associates as an insightful political thinker who managed to maintain relationships with members of an array of Egypt's political factions while always holding fast to his revolutionary ideals for a democratic and economically stable country.

"I lived my childhood believing that Egypt was the centre of the universe because of its 'special geographic location, as well as its climate that is hot and dry in the summer, warm and rainy in the winter' as we were made to memorise in schools," Sabry wrote in a post for his 30th birthday. "And I believed that Hosni Mubarak was the greatest president in the world as they had written in Al-Ahram and said on Channel one." Traveling the world made him see new possibilities for Egypt and brought him to Tahrir Square in January 2011. But more than that, he wrote, "I have found out that borders are merely creations of mankind, that you are a one of mankind before being French, Chinese or American, that blind patriotism is an idea of the past..."

Since his death, a number of Sabry's friends have published moving tributes to his life and career. For those unfamiliar with Sabry, the obituaries by Mohamed El Dahshan, H.A. Hellyer, and Max Fisher convey a strong sense of the man and the loss felt by the Egyptian community. Many others, including Secretary of State John Kerry and figures across the spectrum of Egyptian politics, expressed their condolences on Twitter.

Sabry published one article here at Foreign Policy, on the eve of the 2012 elections that brought Mohamed Morsi to office. Sabry helped establish the al-Dostour political party with Mohamed ElBaradei, but unlike many others in Egypt's divisive political landscape, Sabry never lost sight of the whole picture. He sincerely and pragmatically gauged the country's political fortunes and his fellow revolutionaries' own failings -- and ways that they might still play an active role in an election that pushed them to the sidelines. He wrote:

In retrospect, the road to this moment seems regrettably logical. It is the result of missteps by revolutionary forces, a growing disconnect between many of the activists and a significant percentage of Egyptian society, and the maneuverings of an Egyptian "deep state" that proved more powerful than previously calculated.

First, revolutionaries themselves admit that it was wrong to leave Tahrir Square on Feb. 11, 2011, after Mubarak had officially stepped down, without installing a suitable government or a setting a detailed roadmap for the democratic transition. What's more, it is argued that they miscalculated the breadth, depth, and reasons of the support for the revolution among the Egyptian people.

His insights came from a thorough knowledge of the challenges Egypt faced -- and still faces. In August 2012, soon after Morsi entered office, Sabry laid out the issues that the new administration would have to address in an 18-part guide. In many respects, it was the Morsi administration's failure to address the problems that Sabry identified in 2012 that led to its ouster at the hands of the Egyptian military in July 2013.

Sabry was in the streets, along with thousands of other Egyptians, when the military seized control of the government and deposed Morsi. "The floods of people in the streets around Cairo appeared to me bigger than before, people seemed to genuinely believe they 'took back their country,' and that the military was a hero doing all the right things," he wrote for Al Monitor the day after Morsi's ouster.

Unlike many of his peers, Sabry was more cautious and more circumspect about what would come next. "But perhaps," he wrote, "what characterized this time in Tahrir for me was my sense of worry, deeper than ever before." He called for moderation and political reconciliation: "Egypt will never find stability, and its democracy will never thrive, without inclusiveness, fairness, due process and separation of powers," he wrote. "The Brotherhood and its big base cannot be excluded or treated outside of due process. Repression, especially of a genuinely sizable, believing and passionate public group, will only lead to an explosion.... I wish all of this was different, and it would have been better for Egypt."

That inclusion that Sabry called for seems more distant than ever. In December, the Egyptian government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has tried hundreds of its members. Just earlier this week, a court sentenced 683 Brotherhood members to death in a mass trial. But Sabry, despite the last three years, remained an optimist in a country where optimism has become more and more difficult to maintain.

Sabry continued writing until his abrupt death. His most recent article for Al Monitor was published on April 26, three days before his death, and looked ahead to potential surprises in Egypt's upcoming presidential election. Despite his concern about the direction of Egyptian politics, Sabry remained optimistic. Though retired Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's election is almost guaranteed, Sabry noted that the election would provide opportunities for other voices. As Sisi tries to distance himself from regressive, Mubarak-era tendencies, Sabry wrote, he may have to turn to new policies to address Egypt's challenges. Sabry concluded that Sisi's dominance might, surprisingly, wind up being a boon for other candidates: Without the pressure of pandering with broad platforms to an electorate that has largely made up its mind, they might be able to hone in on specific issues.

Sabry had a talent for seeing Egyptian politics as they are. He was clear-eyed about the country's polarization, but he refused to abandon hope that rivals could come together for the common good of Egypt. That prospect seems far more remote without him.