Human rights and liberal values are under threat in a small, little-known country most people would be hard-pressed to find on a map. Brunei Darussalam, following the radical vision of Osama bin Laden and his followers, became an Islamic state under strict Sharia law this past week, with punishments of death by stoning for adulterers and severing of limbs for thieves. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have yet to focus on the challenges posed by radical Islamic regimes, much less tackle them effectively.
Located on the northern coast of the Island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, Brunei is the world’s fifth wealthiest country among those with per capita annual income over $48,000. It will also become the 14th country or region to fully implement Sharia, a system of moral and religious laws that addresses not only criminal and civil affairs, but also politics, economic transactions and all matters of personal conduct. Because so few Muslim countries have adopted all aspects of the code – including capital punishment, flogging, amputation and stoning – in their criminal justice system, Brunei serves as useful prism for understanding the issue.
Casual observers of the Muslim world may be surprised to learn that the all-encompassing concept of Sharia is one of the primary keys to understanding that world, and indeed, the context of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Those seeking to understand radical Islamic Sunni movements, and al-Qaida in particular, would benefit from reading bin Laden’s 2002 letter to America, which explains his rationale for the attacks.
Students at religious institutions throughout the Muslim world, from Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the preeminent school of Sunni Islamic scholarship, to madrasas in Pakistan, are taught the importance of integrating Allah’s heavenly laws into earthly forms of government.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Islamist organizations around the world tried unsuccessfully to implement Sharia in their home countries and largely failed. Countries including Egypt and Algeria consistently jailed and killed those who championed Islamic republics.
Bin Laden himself was forced to flee to Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which had implemented Sharia and shared his worldview.
He and his fellow jihadis eventually concluded that their failure to bring Islamic law to their home countries was a direct result of US policy, which largely supported non-Islamist autocrats, dictators and kings. September 11 was an attempt to curtail this US support so that Islamists could fill the void and implement Sharia.
Beginning in 2001, al-Qaida and its affiliates attacked Washington, New York, Madrid and London in an effort to influence the 33 Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states that have partially implemented Islamic law, and the 30 others where Sharia plays no role. Their audacious goal was to foster the creation of as many Islamic republics as possible. Battles now being waged in Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen and Bahrain are all part of the war to implement Sharia in Muslim countries.
Ultimately, Brunei is a canary in the mineshaft of the international system and should serve to alert policymakers of the need to address the threat of radical Islam. Some will be quick to point out – erroneously – that with over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, this threat cannot be handled in a politically correct manner. But if only one percent of Muslims espouse radical Islam – and some estimates are higher – the international community is unwise to play the ostrich with its head in the sand.
Because they fear being politically incorrect, policymakers have chosen to call this struggle a war against terrorism. Not only is this inaccurate, but it also distracts from the real problem.
Wars are fought against ideologies and countries, not against tactics.
In World War II, the Allies did not fight against U-boats or kamikazes, but against Germany, Italy and Japan and their Nazi and fascist ideologies. The Cold War that followed was fought against the Soviet Union and communism.
Those who profess support for human rights, freedom of speech and religion and equal rights for homosexuals and women should pay special attention to countries that institute Sharia, since by definition they oppose all the freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies.
International organizations across the political spectrum have addressed these issues for all to see.
For example, the UN Arab Human Development Report of 2002, drafted by leading Arab scholars, was at the forefront of efforts to document the lack of basic freedoms in Islamicist cultures shortly after the September 11 attacks. Amnesty International recently reported that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq (all regimes that have implemented Sharia) lead the world in documented executions. Gay rights groups have repeatedly deplored the statement by former Iranian president Ahmadinejad that there are no gays in Iran.
A close look at today’s wealthiest Islamic republics – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan – demonstrates why we must take the problem of radical Islam seriously. These three regimes account for the vast majority of funding, ideological support and protection for terrorist organizations and jihadis around the globe.
The West defeated each of the 20th century’s hostile ideologies using the full panoply of military, economic, diplomatic and ideological weapons.
Today’s great challenge – radical Islam – deserves no less serious a treatment. Brunei’s recent tilt toward Islamism is a timely reminder that this contest is far from over.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and formerly a student at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.