The government continued to restrict the religious freedom of non-Muslims as well as Muslims who did not belong to the Shafi’i school. It continued to apply the SPC to non-Muslims, resulting in arrests, fines, and confiscations, as well as impose traditional Islamic social norms more broadly, imposing limitations on businesses, activities suspected of encouraging mingling of men and women, proselytizing, and religious education.
Authorities continued to arrest persons for offenses under sharia, such as khalwat (close proximity between the sexes) and alcohol consumption by Muslims. Figures provided by the AGC stated that, out of 42 individuals investigated for khalwat, only two cases were prosecuted, which resulted in the conviction of eight people. Both cases were prosecuted under longstanding law as opposed to the SPC. Of those individuals investigated, 15 were non-Bruneian. Most of those detained for a first offense of khalwat were fined and released. Men were subject to a BND 1,000 ($797) fine and women to a BND 500 ($399) fine if convicted of khalwat. Following the announcement of the implementation of sharia in October 2013 religious authorities moved swiftly to ban karaoke booths, stating they could encourage people to commit khalwat due to the private and dark nature of the booths.
An Indonesian Muslim man was charged with failing to respect Ramadan by smoking in public during fasting hours. According to a government official, the man was unable to pay the imposed fine and so was sentenced to serve six months in jail.
There were reports from individuals who believed they were being monitored for comments they had made online that touched on the SPC or religious issues. In one case, a man who posted a link on social media to an article in a Malaysian newspaper calling for Muslims to like and touch dogs (which are considered unclean in Shafi’i Islam) reportedly was summoned for questioning by religious enforcement officers for possible, unspecified charges under the SPC. The man was reportedly released after questioning.
The government enforced business hour restrictions for all businesses, requiring that they close for the two hours of Friday prayers.
Following a directive that banned all restaurants from serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan, religious enforcement officers visited several establishments which had disobeyed the directive and delivered warning letters. There were no reports of restaurants being prosecuted, and several non-halal restaurants submitted a letter seeking exemption from the policy.
In December MORA Religious Enforcement Officers told several businesses in Bandar Seri Begawan displaying Christmas decorations (a longstanding annual practice in many Brunei businesses) to remove the decorations, warning them that they were violating the SPC. MORA later issued a statement noting that Muslim children and adults could be seen wearing Santa hats and clothing and that such actions constituted an offense under sections of the SPC which prohibit teaching doctrine contrary to Islam; propagating religions other than Islam; persuading Muslims to change religion; persuading persons with no religion to join a religion other than Islam; and exposing Muslim children to religions other than Islam. Those sections include possible punishments of up to five years in prison and BND 20,000 fines ($15,949). The MORA release quoted a hadith (statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) warning Muslims against imitating the practices of other people because “whoever imitates a people is one of them.” MORA stated that non-Muslims may continue to practice their religious festivities as long as the celebrations are not disclosed or displayed publicly to Muslims. MORA’s actions prompted a number of businesses to remove their Christmas decorations early. There were no reports that churches or private homeowners were told to remove decorations.
The government maintained strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. The government stated that any publication in which any part describes, depicts, or expresses matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups is deemed to be objectionable under the law. The same law states that it is an offense for a person to import any objectionable publication.
The government prohibited proselytizing by any group other than the official Shafi’i school. It periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism or Salafism. In April the Islamic Religious Council canceled a series of speeches planned by a Canadian preacher over concerns that he would promote Wahhabism.
The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether they were Muslim. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or face fines or potential arrest and imprisonment. Religious enforcement officers said they currently were issuing only warnings to non-Muslims suspected of violating the sections of the SPC that have been implemented. Religious authorities checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications and foreign Muslims were subject to SPC; however, many persons did not identify their faith and were not challenged.
Religious authorities regularly participated in raids to confiscate alcoholic beverages and non-halal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. Religious authorities allowed non-halal restaurants and non-halal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but held public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.
In the early stages of the SPC’s implementation, there was public speculation that the broad prohibition of “indecent behavior” would be applied to mandate religiously acceptable clothing, including head coverings, for Muslim women. In a meeting with his religious council, the Sultan criticized advisors for confusion over the SPC. He asked why this speculation was persisting, noting the SPC does not have a dress code but only bars indecent behavior. Since then speculation on the dress code subsided.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) required courses on Islam and MIB in all schools that adhered to the state curriculum. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the Islamic head covering. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks. The MOE prohibited the teaching of other religions and comparative religious studies in schools.
The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system. Authorities prohibited non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools, but tolerated religious education in private settings, such as the home. The government sometimes pressured non-Muslims to conform to Islamic guidelines.
Among the incentives offered to prospective converts to the Shafi’i school, especially those from the indigenous communities in rural areas, were monthly financial assistance, new homes, electric generators, and water pumps, as well as funds to perform the Hajj. The government held presentations encouraging restaurants to adopt halal standards and gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage. Official government policy supported the Islamic faith through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make Brunei a zikir nation, or a nation that remembers and obeys Allah.
Lawyers reported that while there was no specific law barring Muslims from marrying non-Muslims, if a Muslim tried to marry a non-Muslim, the officiant would require the non-Muslim to convert.
There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities reinforced social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong, a traditional head covering, and many women did so. Women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform which included a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (hat), although this was not required in all schools.
All government meetings and ceremonies commenced with a Muslim prayer, which the government stated was not a legal requirement, but a matter of custom.
A U.S. Department of State magazine describing the experience of Muslims living in the United States was denied distribution to schools and public libraries in Brunei by MORA. In its letter of denial, MORA noted that the magazine had a picture that seemed to advocate that all religions are united, and said that in Brunei, “The freedom to practice another religion for the non-Muslim is not forbidden, but to spread the understanding of other religions except Islam is not allowed.” The government did not clarify this policy, and there were no reports of persons charged for proselytizing under the SPC or the preexisting laws.
Christian churches and associated schools were allowed, for safety reasons, to repair and renovate buildings on their sites, but the approval process was often lengthy and difficult. All church associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and offered a full curriculum, including lessons on Islam. The schools were open for students of any religion but non-Islamic students did not have to attend classes on Islam.