Applauding Brunei

Sultan of Brunei

Now that the government of Brunei has fully implemented sharia law in regard to gays and adulterers – meaning that those found guilty of these violations of Islam will henceforth be stoned to death – politicians, celebrities, and commentators around the world have been unhesitant in their expressions of outrage. People like Ellen Degeneres, George Clooney, and Elton John have called for boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Dorchester in London, the Plaza Athenee in Paris, and other the posh hostelries that the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, owns in the U.S. and Europe; Deutsche Bank has banned its employees from staying at the hotels, and the Financial Times and other firms have cancelled events scheduled to take place in them. Ads for holidays in Brunei have been pulled from London buses; Virgin Australia terminated a deal with Royal Brunei Airlines, the state-owned carrier, as has at least one major travel agency; Western universities that have awarded honorary degrees to the Sultan (who also serves as his nation’s prime minister, defense minister, finance minister, and foreign minister) have said that they are reviewing those honors.

Interior, Dorchester Hotel

Yet this fury over the Sultan’s action is not universal. Residents of Brunei interviewed by the Agence France-Presse gave it a thumbs-up. “I’m proud, because implementing the law feels like it solidifies the Islamic identity of Brunei,” said Muhammad Antoni, a 27-year-old worker. Haziah Zainal, a 36-year-old civil servant, said that famous people calling for boycotts should mind their own business. “These actions seem ignorant,” said Zainal, “as they have not even been here to experience what it’s like.” While everyone is focusing on Brunei, homosexuality is a capital offense in at least ten other Muslim countries, although in Yemen the punishment is applicable only to married men and in Qatar only to married Muslims. One of the countries in question is Saudi Arabia, but this has not prevented companies like Uber, Lyft, Twitter, and Snapchat from accepting Saudi investment or universities like MIT, funded by Saudi money. Polls have shown that close to half of Muslims in Britain would like to see sharia law introduced in that country, but when UKIP head Gerard Batten said on LBC the other day that many British Muslims do indeed hold anti-democratic views, his interviewer called this a grotesque exaggeration and branded Batten a far-right bigot for even suggesting such a thing.

Daniel Haqiqatjou

Among those celebrating Brunei’s tough new laws was Daniel Haqiqatjou, a Harvard-educated American Muslim who, in a March 30 article, praised the Sultan for “implementing hudud [punishments dictated by sharia law] to crack down on sodomites and fornicators!” Haqiqatjou explained his enthusiasm as follows: “Allah created human beings in a certain way. Our bodies and minds are created in a certain way and only certain types of relationships allow human beings to flourish in this world and the next, while other types of behaviors lead to destruction and widespread suffering.” Taking note of the organized effort to persuade people not to stay at Brunei-owned hotels, Haqiqatjou wrote: “I think Muslims need to counteract any boycott by making Brunei their next vacation destination spot. Maybe some of these expensive spiritual tourism tours…can make Brunei the next go-to site, maybe attend a caning or two so Western Muslims can experience first hand what implementing hudud actually means.” If Haqiqatjou were some rara avis, of course, his views wouldn’t be worth heeding. The alarming fact, however, is that his number is legion.

The loveliness of Putin

Elton-John
Sir Elton John

Some readers may have noticed a news story a few weeks back about Elton John and Vladimir Putin. Yes, that’s right, Elton John and Vladimir Putin.

In an interview, Elton had expressed concern about gay rights under Putin, whose 2013 law banning “propaganda about non-traditional sexual relations” helped spike gay-bashing in Russia. Elton has long been outspoken on gay rights, and last year, writing on his website, he discussed his latest visit to Russia, in December 2013: 

putin19On that trip I met with members of the LGBT community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country. What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people’s basic human rights.

The people I met in Moscow – gay men and lesbians in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would “cure” them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a “sodomite”. Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse – at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street – since the legislation came into force last June. And, some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled “homosexual propaganda” and shut down.

In September of this year, while visiting the Ukraine and voicing support for LGBT rights in that country, Elton told the BBC that he wanted to talk LGBT rights with Putin himself: “It’s probably pie in the sky….He may laugh behind my back when he shuts the door, and call me an absolute idiot, but at least I can think I have the conscience to say I tried.”

krasnovstolyarov
Vovan and Lexus

This statement caught the attention of a couple of Russian TV comedians, Vladimir “Vovan” Krasnov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who are apparently famous in their country for pranking celebrities. They duped Elton with a phony phone call, pretending to be Putin and inviting the singer-songwriter to come to Moscow for a friendly chat. John accepted the invitation. Later, when he found out he’d been pranked, he took the news in good spirits.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In mid October, it was reported that Putin, after learning about the gag, actually did call Elton.

FILE - In this photo, Sir Elton John, left, and husband David Furnish attend the Ninth Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit 'An Enduring Vision' at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. John and Furnish have become parents to a 7-pound, 15-ounce baby boy born on Christmas Day. The news was first reported Monday night by USMagazine.com and confirmed to The Associated Press by John's Los Angeles-based publicist. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)
Elton John and David Furnish

The source for this report was none other than John’s husband, film producer David Furnish. Appearing at an awards ceremony in London on Wednesday, Furnish said that John and Vlad had actually made plans to meet and discuss gay rights. Apparently they got off to a very friendly start. As the Daily Mail put it, Furnish “described the man who backed a civil war in Ukraine and sent forces to help Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, as ‘so polite and lovely.’” Furnish repeated: “He’s genuinely lovely.” And then he added this baffling remark: “Besides, this isn’t about politics – I’m not a politician – it’s about humanity.”

Meaning what, exactly? When a man’s “politics” are inhumane, not to say downright brutal, how to pry loose the concept of “politics” from the concept of “humanity”? Does Elton, whose devotion to LGBT rights is surely admirable, agree that Putin, who has imprisoned and murdered his political opponents, is lovely? Does it really take a simple phone call to make Furnish, and maybe Elton too, decide that a tyrant is perhaps actually not a tyrant at all? Or that a tyrant can remain a tyrant but still, somehow, be lovely? Does this fall into the same category as Hitler loving his pet dog?

With all due respect to Elton’s activism, we’re admittedly scratching our heads over that one.