I was outed as gay on a King’s exchange trip to Brunei, then something amazing happened

Nik and three UBD student ambassadors on his last day in Brunei

As King’s stays silent on the honorary degree it gave to the Sultan of Brunei, a man who has begun introducing law allowing stoning for homosexuals, one student recalls his experience of the country and its people.

AZURE skies pouring over limitless jungles punctuated by golden minarets: no wonder Brunei is known as ‘The House of Peace’ or ‘Darussalam’.

Brunei remains relatively unknown in the UK; some are aware of the country’s devoutly Islamic character, others of its massive oil wealth – which makes Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah one of the richest men in the world. Others simply struggle to place the tiny tropical kingdom on a map.

Even at King’s, many students are unaware of the special relationship that we share with Brunei’s foremost academic institution, The University of Brunei Darussalam.

But today, Brunei hits the headlines for the introduction of the Sultan’s new interpretation of Sharia law that stipulates flogging, mutilation and stoning for “crimes” including same-sex sexual acts.

The very same Sultan who was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from King’s in 2011.

‘Unaware or wilful overlook’

King’s has a proud reputation for being a university that promotes both equality and diversity. But how is this reputation compatible with the public endorsement of a man who advocates stoning a minority group to death?

Our university may have fond connections with Brunei, but it’s time to reassess its connections with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

When I visited The University of Brunei (UBD) in 2013 as part of a King’s summer school programme, the punishments for homosexuality were flogging and imprisonment – but the intention to implement new, even harsher, legislation had been kicking around for many years.

‘I kept my sexuality secret’

When King’s awarded the Sultan his honorary doctorate, perhaps they were unaware of his contempt for the country’s LGBT population, or maybe they wilfully overlooked it.

As a queer student travelling to Brunei, I thought it best to keep my sexuality a secret. This, however, was not to be as I was inadvertently outed by a fellow King’s students.

Free Style!: King's Exchange students and UBD students celebrate the end of the three week exchange program

The response was not one of abjection or moral disgust, but rather one of love and understanding from students and staff alike.

On discovering I was gay, UBD students swiftly changed their morning greetings from a curt “hello” to a TV sitcom-esque “heyyyyaaaaaaaaaa”, as I quickly became the University of Brunei Darussalam’s new GBF (Gay Best Friend).

‘Frightened by fundamentalism’

In fact, in the month I spent there, the only direct homophobic comment I received was from a British ex-pat who told me: “Your kind are not wanted in this country”. So what did the students of the University of Brunei Darussalam think about the incoming laws?

Generally Bruneians have a deep love and respect for their Sultan. Many students commented that they thought the law would never actually be introduced, or that it may only take place in “extreme cases”.

Many others were frightened by the fundamentalist direction that the Sultan was taking. “It’s just stupid,” a female student told me, “people should be allowed to do what they want… I don’t give a fuck.”

Nik enjoying the sunset on the South China Sea with one of his new friends from UBD

Though many students shared this ‘live and let live’ attitude, public opposition to the Sultan is not only socially unacceptable in Brunei, it is also punishable by imprisonment.

‘Lack of foundation in Islamic scriptures’

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has not just given a bad name to the people of Brunei, but also to Islam. The recent headlines give ammunition to far-right Islamaphobic groups and stoke public perceptions that Islam is intrinsically opposed to “Western liberalism”.

But what does the Qur’an actually say about the punishment of homosexual acts?

Party in the rainforest: Brueian woman performing traditional dance of the Iban tribe

Prominent Islamic scholars such as Amina Wadud and Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle point out that the Qur’an makes no explicit mention of homosexuality and certainly details no punishment for being gay.

Even early classical Islamic scholars such as Abu Bakr al-Jassas criticised the use of the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts for its lack of foundation in Islamic scriptures and stipulates clearly that: “the blood of a Muslim is not liable to be shed [in this instance]”.

‘Violent autocrat’

Al-Jassas even noted that using the death sentence to punish homosexuals contradicts basic Qur’anic principles of Islamic jurisprudence.

For the sake of human rights worldwide, and the people of Brunei, King’s College London needs to take a stand and revoke Hassanal Bolkiah’s honorary law degree.

The Sultan of Brunei has shown himself to be a violent autocrat, all too happy to pander to the most reactionary and ill-thought out interpretations of Sharia law.

Not only does Hassanal Bolkiah give a bad name to Muslims across the world but he has made himself one of the world’s most infamous homophobes.

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