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All things decadent are Western

In April 2019, Brunei—the predominantly Muslim country in Southeast Asia—adopted one of the most draconian penal codes in the world. The new law called for the death penalty for offenses such as robbery, adultery, sodomy, rape, and insulting Prophet Mohammad. It also prescribed amputation for theft and public flogging for abortion.

About the same time, several U.S. states were enacting draconian laws to restrict or, in effect, ban abortion. By May 2019, eight states had adopted such laws: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah. And several more states were in the process of legislating such laws.

The Alabama law was the most draconian of all. It stipulated up to 99 years of imprisonment for any physician who performed abortion for any reason other than to save the expectant mother’s life or to remove a non-viable embryo. The rationale was that an embryo becomes a human being as soon as its heartbeat can be detected. Technically, that’s about six weeks after conception, just when women begin to sense that they may have conceived.

The draconian laws in countries as politically and culturally disparate as Brunei and the United States are only a sample of the universal contestations over values. In the United States, the laws spurred massive protests and opponents set their eyes on the courts to reverse them. Such laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. But the court had turned markedly conservative by 2019, especially with President Donald Trump’s appointment of two conservation justices: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. So, anti-abortion legislators in various states aimed to give the court an opportunity to overturn itself. It didn’t.

Meanwhile, in Brunei—a country that has been under the authoritarian rule of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah since 1968—objections to the newly announced draconian codes could only be muted. Open challenges would be swiftly repressed. Even then, it may well be that the

Sultan announced the new code in response to quiet protests over the trajectory of the country’s values. The Sultan and some members of his royal family had been notorious for indulgent lifestyles. The new penal code may have been intended for image repair.

CNN’s Rebecca Wright recounts this lifestyle in an article posted on in April 2019. Among her sources was Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University and a specialist on Asia. “The sultan of Brunei and his brother Prince Jefri were known for their harems, their excesses in terms of purchasing of cars, their sexual exploits,” Wright quotes Welsh as saying. “All of these women were coming into Brunei in the 1980s, so the image of them being the playboys was very prevalent.”1

In splurging, nothing perhaps could top the sultan’s two-week 50th birthday extravaganza in 1996 that was estimated to have cost $25 million. Among the performers was the hip-thrusting and crotchgrabbing Michael Jackson.

Though not nearly at the same level of lavishness, such indulgent lifestyles are commonplace in the Arab/Muslim world. Yet to their conservative critics, decadence is a Western value. It covers the gamut of vices and presumed vices: loose sexual mores, female immodesty, civic unruliness, and disrespect for the natural order.

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