Holy Political Power Batman! Faith and Authority in Brunei and Beyond

Secretary Kerry Meets With Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei. Photo by US Department of State.


The practice of political leaders also exercising religious prerogatives or claiming to have divine support has appeared in numerous societies across history, including ancient Rome, Egypt, and Japan until 1946. The Islamic world in particular provides many examples, as it historically rejected the distinction between political and spiritual affairs. For 500 years, the Ottoman sultans also bore the title of caliph, the head of the global Muslim community. Today, the Supreme Leader of Iran calls himself the spiritual leader of all Shiites and the “deputy” of the Prophet Muhammad. But he is not the only contemporary Muslim head of government who simultaneously serves as his country’s top religious figure. Another such actor is in fact an American ally: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah praying. Photo by Wikipedia user Imfeelyoung / CC BY-SA 4.0 (photo unmodified)
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah praying. Photo by Wikipedia user Imfeelyoung / CC BY-SA 4.0 (Photo unmodified)

Brunei is a tiny nation of 430,000 people located in northwest Borneo whose inhabitants are mostly Malay Muslims. Led by a royal family dating back to the 14th century, its territory dwindled precipitously in the 1800s and its existence was threatened by the ambitions of the neighboring “White Rajah,” Charles Brooke. In 1906, Great Britain agreed to preserve Brunei’s titular independence and the institution of the sultanate in exchange for it becoming a protectorate. Discord over whether Brunei should join newly independent Malaysia caused an unsuccessful rebellion in 1962 against Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III, who declared a state of emergency that still exists today. He successfully resisted British pressure to democratize and abdicated in 1967 to let the current sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, take over. Upon independence in 1984, Sultan Bolkiah declared that Brunei would always be a “Malay Islamic Monarchy” in line with the teachings of Sunni Islam.

While Brunei’s citizens seem mostly content, the government is quite illiberal; the constitution gives the Sultan practically unlimited power during a state of emergency (which has existed for 53 years.) He keeps the population docile primarily through distributing rents from Brunei’s declining but still substantial hydrocarbon reserves. Brunei’s citizens (referred to as “subjects of His Majesty the Sultan”) receive free education, assistance with housing, and generous pensions. There is no personal income tax, value-added tax, or goods and services tax. Additionally, many find comfortable jobs with the government. Observer after observer regards this as the sine qua non of Brunei’s political stability and Bolkiah’s continued hold on power, with several bluntly stating that he has bought Bruneians’ loyalty.

The Sultan supplements the support generated from these material benefits with the homemade ideology mentioned in his independence speech, Malay Islamic Monarchy. Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIM) represents a carefully crafted blurring of ethnic identity, religion, and patriotism designed to legitimize the Sultan by claiming that the three have the same interests. At its heart, MIM posits that the Sultan’s absolute power stems from religious and cultural norms. In his revealing book Issues in Brunei Studies, Haji Abdul Latif Haji Ibrahim, a professor and former senior member of the government, calls Bolkiah the “representative of God” and claims that, “He upholds the trust to administer the government and domain with justice according to Islam, since governing the country is itself a divine trust bestowed by Allah.” Ibrahim believes:

[The three pillars of MIM] must be seen through a holistic approach of interdependency since each pillar cannot stand on its own without the others. In the context of Brunei Darussalam, what is a Malay without Islam as his spiritual power and the monarchy as his authority? What is a monarchy without Malay as the mass force to uphold its legitimacy and Islam as the basis of its vision towards a harmonious and prosperous nation under the guidance of Allah? What is Islam without the Monarch as Khalifah (viceregent) of God on this earth and leader of the Muslim Ummah with the Malay as the dominant force politically?

According to this logic, an attack on one represents an attack on all; those who criticize absolute monarchy not only go against the state, but against Malay culture and God himself. The overlapping of identities and institutions is intended to envelop the Sultan’s subjects, linking him to everyday routines such as prayer. Ibrahim all but admits that MIM ultimately exists to preserve the regime when he states in Issues in Brunei Studies that it “has been projected as the only viable concept to be adopted by Brunei not only to uphold the cultural and religious identity of Brunei Malays but more significantly to procure the survival of the monarch itself.” By making the sultan the focal point of religion and culture, MIM demands that a devout Muslim and a patriotic Bruneian must also be a loyal royalist.

Brunei attempts to instill MIM through a system of lifelong indoctrination. The government does so primarily by making the subject mandatory in government schools. All students at Universeti Brunei Darussalam (the main and for many years Brunei’s sole university) must pass a MIM course in order to graduate. Furthermore, the government organizes a constant series of public MIM workshops and seminars. Discussing a then-upcoming MIM seminar, the Brunei Times wrote that it hopes to build, “an awareness of and appreciation for His Majesty’s Government in ensuring the well-being of the people.” The end goal is to produce unquestioning subjects. Haji Abdul Latif Haji Ibrahim says, “Citizens are always reminded to be loyal to the Sultan, not only as part of the cultural tradition, but also requested by the teachings of Islam.”

Two factors largely explain Bolkiah’s wielding of religion to bolster his rule. When Brunei became a British protectorate in 1906, the Sultan relinquished effective leadership to the British. However, the treaty provided that he would maintain his religious prerogatives. Faith therefore became the kernel around which later sultans, especially Bolkiah’s father (ruled 1950-1967), preserved and rebuilt the sultanate’s power and prestige. To some degree, Bolkiah is simply following in his ancestors’ footsteps. Second, the worldwide revival of Islam since the 1970s has made religion an increasingly potent method to persuade many Muslims with. Bruneians are no exception.

In short, Brunei provides a textbook example of how governments can use religion as a method of control. We should hesitate, however, before labeling governmental involvement in religious affairs as somehow unnatural or a guaranteed sign of manipulation by elites. In 2011 Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shabaz Bhatti of Pakistan were both murdered because of their criticism of their country’s blasphemy laws. While controversial to some, these laws clearly enjoy substantial popular support: a 2013 Pew poll found that 75% of Pakistanis supported them. Just as we find the specter of government policing our religion terrifying, others consider equally repulsive the notion of authorities not enforcing long-held beliefs. Controlling the populace and maintaining religion values do not necessarily conflict.

Benjamin Schwartz graduated UC Berkeley with a major in political science. He has interned in U.S. Embassies in Greece and Myanmar as well as the Scottish and Greek Parliaments. He hopes to become a Foreign Service Officer. He is now traveling to Japan to teach English there.


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