Are Politics Regressing to Premodern Forms?

The sultan of Brunei has proposed stoning as a punishment for male sodomy.

Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei
Piroschka Van De Wouw / Reuters

The sultan’s hand felt soft and gentle, more suited for a moisturizer commercial than for participating in a public stoning. By the official count, the sultan of Brunei had shaken tens of thousands of hands in the previous two days, and I worried that by the time his hand shook mine, it would be blistered or leathery. But absolute monarchs are different from you and me, and the sultan of this oil-rich Southeast Asian city-state was different dermatologically as well. When I arrived at the front of the receiving line and squeezed the royal hand, lightly, I thought of Curley in Of Mice and Men, who wore a “glove fulla vaseline” to keep his hand “soft for his wife.” (Wives, I thought, in his case. The sultan has had as many as two at a time.)

The sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, recently attracted fury and denunciation by instituting death by stoning as punishment for male sodomy. (The prescribed punishment for sexual acts between women is less harsh.) He had foreshadowed this policy years earlier but delayed implementing it until April. Within weeks, he had reversed himself, or at least promised that he would delay the change until after the month of Ramadan. It remains delayed. I met him during last year’s open house, an annual three-day event when any man may come to the sultan of Brunei’s palace, stand in line, and shake his hand and the hands of about a dozen other members of the royal family.

Tens of thousands of handshakes in two days means less than a second per handshake. I figured in that time, I could bleat a single syllable of dissent from his sodomy policy. For some reason I spent my one syllable saying “Hi,” and got a quiet “Hello” in response before being hurried along to shake the hands of his brother and sons. Within seconds I had clasped my way through the entire receiving line, and been led to a large hall where workers gave me a tastefully wrapped fruitcake and a photograph of the sultan as parting gifts.

No politician in the United States receives adulation in quite this ritualistic way. There are rallies, adoring crowds, MAGA hats, and HOPE T-shirts. But our system is designed to discourage and prevent the courtly obeisance that happens at least annually in Brunei. Here it is understood that no politics exist except at the pleasure of the sultan, and every freedom depends on his willingness to grant it. The rally or ritual is not an ornament on the system, but a celebration or acknowledgment of the system itself, or himself. One thing you get from a nod and a weary handshake, even just once a year: a chance to look a sovereign in the eye, and confirm and obtain a physical connection to assure you that the will to whom you have surrendered remains, at least three days a year, earthbound and human. Every other day of the year, he is one of the richest men on Earth. But briefly he stands on your level.

When I was in Brunei, I heard various defenses of the sodomy policy, which came down to an assertion that the sultan rules justly, and that he is a man of honor, proud of his country’s modernity and not at all keen to cast the first stone. And in the political culture of an absolute monarchy, the personal proclivities of the sovereign are pretty much what you have to go on. If a law mandating the execution of gays were passed today in the United States (as some would like), I would see no alternative but to fight against my government. In a country where a man is sovereign, and the laws are merely an extension of his will, it might be possible that his will differs from the straightforward reading of his policy, and that he expects and hopes to stone no one at all.

Other defenses were familiar to me from other Islamist societies that criminalize gay sex: Sharia law requires certain punishments for certain crimes, and sodomy has historically been one of them; the sultanate probably won’t stone many people anyway, because potential sodomites will be deterred or driven so far underground that they’ll never be caught; and the sultan is getting older—he is now 72—and we should not be surprised that as he nears his meeting with God, he will begin setting his country in order, like a drill sergeant preparing his barracks for an inspection. He is famous for his playboy exploits, and now he is in a period of atonement.

The history (and practice) of Islamic law on sodomy isn’t as unequivocal as one might think. A few Muslim jurists have argued that because sodomy is not vaginal sex, it would be wrong to extend the logic of punishment for unlawful vaginal sex (called zina, which is generally punished with stoning) to other acts. Most Muslim scholars, including jurists from the school of Islam officially practiced in Brunei, have historically called for execution. But the standard of evidence has typically been high enough to prevent punishment in all but extremely overt cases, requiring either four witnesses or a public and unforced confession. And of course many Muslims have no interest in whipping, burning, or stoning sodomites at all.

The decision to kill gays as a matter of state policy, however abortive and hedged, is not one that lends itself to charitable interpretation from those who consider themselves broadly liberal. And indeed I find all these hedges as risible as they are sincere. They sound like cognitive dissonance: loyalty to a religion and to a sovereign, mixing uncomfortably with a cosmopolitan moral sense that says killing gays means killing gays, and is abhorrent under any circumstance. That is what I believe.

But the sultanate of Brunei is, by the standard of, say, Saudi Arabia (let alone the Islamic State), liberal. An unenforced law against homosexuality is better than a zealously enforced one, and in some cases it could conceivably be better than no law at all—if it persuades religious conservatives to ease up and compromise in other spheres. Call this the methadone theory of political Islam: If you administer a milder form of Sharia, you satisfy an appetite that might otherwise lead to a more sinister form of it. Non-Muslims who encourage indulgent attitudes toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party in Turkey, or Sharia implementation in Aceh, Indonesia, tacitly endorse this theory.

And in Brunei, the theory may not be wholly naive. The sultan is getting old might be another way of saying: This is a phase, and it will pass when he does. Brunei resembles Miami more than it resembles Raqqah. It has swimming pools and polo grounds and nice sushi restaurants on the water. When fanatics are present, and looking around for someone to stone to death, you can feel the aggression in the air. I did not feel that in Brunei. If any country can be trusted not to stone gay people, while nonetheless demanding and reserving the right to do so, perhaps Brunei is it.

I would not recommend that gays in Brunei stick around to find out. Those with no option to leave will have to stay in the shadows. Unenforced laws can suddenly become enforced when convenient, and like laws against blasphemy, they tend to be invoked to humiliate and ruin people who are vulnerable and unpopular for other reasons. But observation of this handshake ritual did make me pause before reaching conclusions about the political culture I presumed to judge.

Behind me in line (as a Westerner and an acquaintance of high-powered Bruneians, I was allowed to cut to the front), I saw huge throngs of regular Bruneians and poor foreign laborers waiting behind cordons and dressed in their best attire, which in the case of the poor was sometimes modest. The sultan meets with his subjects during other parts of the year as well, and they seek favors and redress from him, because under this system, you can hope that he will let the rules slide, if the alternative is to enforce a manifestly unjust law.

In the United States, we have to change the law. In Brunei, one can hope to change the man whose word is the law. When ordinary citizens petition the president of the United States for the suspension of ordinary rules for their benefit, we call the process corrupt. In Brunei, it is the only process that exists, and every now and then it breaks in one’s favor. Gays and their allies, including the businesses who support and employ them, might consider whether the odds of a favorable break are good enough to merit continued work in the sultanate.

In the gift shop at the sultan’s museum I found a baseball cap, fire-engine red, with white lettering in a familiar font but without the words I was expecting:

Of course the parallels presented themselves instantly: two playboy sovereigns with authoritarian tendencies and a love of gilt palaces. They have even done business; Trump bought the sultan’s yacht in the late 1980s, and the two share a sideline in luxury hotels. According to Stormy Daniels, Trump’s preferred West Coast fornication venue was the Beverly Hills Hotel, owned by the sultan. Trump is a populist, mingling with the unwashed much more often than the sultan. But he does not pretend to be unwashed himself—rather, he cultivates an image of unobtainable wealth, like a sultan without a sultanate.

What could be more thrilling than to see a demigod briefly assume the indignities of human form, eating Burger King and traveling to places like Pensacola and Wheeling? A century ago, the historian Marc Bloch documented a phenomenon, mostly of the 15th and 16th centuries, called “the King’s touch,” in which sick European peasants would line up to receive the healing touch of their monarch. The touch was in a sense pure fraud—it healed only scrofula, a condition which often resolves by itself—but it was also popular; kings who didn’t palpate their subjects were begged to do so, and rewarded with adoration when they did. The practice stopped only in the early 19th century—not coincidentally the dawn of nationalism, liberalism, and other forms of modern politics.

Are politics regressing to premodern forms? Did they never really progress beyond them? It is possible to read too much into these rallies and rituals. But when a man is legally murdered by having bricks thrown at his head, in a country as recently advanced as Brunei, I think we will have our answer.