Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

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“It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilise them to obtain justice,” declared Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in October 2013, when he first announced a three-part plan for the implementation of Sharia law in his tiny, wealthy and once oil-rich Kingdom of Brunei. Many of those who would essentially be sentenced to death by these laws considered fleeing, but some stayed in the hope that they would ultimately not come to pass. But as of Thursday, April 3, 2019, these ordinances, known as the Hudood laws, which implement stoning for adultery, make theft punishable by amputation and homosexuality punishable by death, are now in effect.

Rafia Zakaria

In 2013 and again now, this move has immersed the country’s small LGBTQ community in dread and ignited outrage in the West. Actor George Clooney, long a critic of the laws as human rights violations, argued for a complete boycott of the Dorchester Hotels, a luxury chain owned by the Sultan of Brunei. “Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens? Are we going to pay for these human rights violations?” Clooney demanded in an opinion article as he urged Hollywood’s elite to boycott the Sultan’s hotels. Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Jamie Lee Curtis and Billie Jean King have joined in calling for a boycott.

The answer is no. Even though boycott may have a limited impact on the $20 billion dollar fortune of a Sultan who is an absolute monarch, it is better than the meager nothing that would be its alternative. A sharper pinch could be delivered if the United States and its allies would consider halting foreign investment in the country, drying up a rich source of income on which Brunei is increasingly dependent. Those who wish to take action or speak out against these laws should also point out that Brunei is propping up an obsolete version of Sharia law as a means of covering up its political conundrums and failed efforts at economic diversification.

The heinousness of these laws is a given, but the Sultan’s hard line stems perhaps not from ideology as much as from desperation over his Kingdom’s position in the world. The real problems facing Brunei are economic. According to an analysis of 2015 data from the International Monetary Fund, oil production has fallen 40% since 2006 and the Sultan is aware of the possibility that reserves could run out by 2025. Government deficits have also been growing, something the monarchy has tried to address simply by pumping more oil. With 90% of the country’s economy dependent on oil, all of this points to an emerging cataclysm in a Kingdom unused to either fiscal conservatism or economic want.

Nor has the Sultan made any effort to provide more political rights. There are no independent political parties. In 2017, 19 Indian nationals working in Brunei were fined for gathering without a permit to play a traditional sport. The unicameral Legislative Council is made up of members who are appointed by the Sultan himself. Even the “elections” for village councils only include candidates who have been selected by the government.

All of this may have been less of an issue for the Sultan when oil money promoted an easier and more obedient quiescence, but with fewer resources to go around, the population is likely to want a greater say in what happens to them and the country, a situation that could spell the end of the monarchy.

The Sultan is likely selling Sharia law as the answer, as has been the case with beleaguered absolute rulers past. General Zia-ul-Haq implemented similar laws in Pakistan in 1979, for instance, in an effort to legitimize his military rule. The “Islamization” of the country thus became a means of justifying his dictatorship and exists as a parallel legal system even to this day. So it could be with the Sultan, who also functions as Brunei’s Prime Minister. The task of taking the country toward an imagined Islamic purity may cover his refusal to grant greater political rights, not to mention coming up with a coherent plan to confront the country’s incipient economic crisis.

It’s important to note that the draconian punishments that will be imposed on the citizens of Brunei have faced criticism from modern Islamic scholars for some time. In 2005, Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan issued an “International Call for Moratorium on Corporal Punishment, Stoning and Death Penalty in the Islamic World.” In his call, Ramadan argued that a majority of Islamic scholars agree that the punishments are derived from certain Islamic prescriptions, but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to re-establish (they were context-driven pronouncements that were limited to circumstances that no longer exist). This being so, any current implementation of such punishments cannot be considered Islamic. Not only must the international community highlight this, but it should do so for all countries, treating Brunei and Sudan the same as Saudi Arabia.

The content of Ramadan’s call is particularly pertinent in the case of Brunei and it points to the additional tactics that must be utilized to campaign against this law. The Sultan is betting that the implementation of Sharia, particularly in this draconian form, will rouse popular sentiment in a majority-Muslim country.

Those in power will likely try to paint the West’s opposition, most visibly embodied in Clooney, as an obstacle in Brunei’s return to an authentic Islamic identity, uniting the country under the umbrella of the Sultan’s rule. In emphasizing that the punishments themselves are un-Islamic, opponents can further expose this fake dichotomy between the West and the rest as a fatuous tool of political expedience to prolong the Sultan’s reign.

An effective strategy against Brunei’s decision to implement its own version of Sharia law must thus be two-pronged. The first, a boycott of the luxury hotel properties owned by the Kingdom, should be combined with a demand that the United States and its allies curb its own billion-dollar investments in the country. Second, the false dichotomy that the Sultan’s edict is trying to create between Brunei’s desire to be an Islamic country and the West’s proposition of human rights must be denounced as a lie.

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    The Sharia laws being implemented in Brunei posture as Islamic but marginalize the weakest while bolstering the position of a profligate ruler unwilling to give up power. It is up to the international community to hold him accountable and to halt this misuse of Islam as a means of oppression and barbaric cruelty.