Inside Hollywood's Confrontation with the Anti-Gay Sultan of Brunei

The Boycott Brunei movement fuels ignorance of Islamic law and largely ignores the country's role as a U.S. ally.

Ellen DeGeneres on Hollywood Blvd where she was honored with the 2,477th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Photo Credit: Featureflash /

Two weeks ago, if you asked most Americans where the country of Brunei was, blank stares would be common. But that has changed in recent days, as a Hollywood boycott of hotels affiliated with the government of the tiny Southeast Asian nation has picked up steam over anti-gay laws. The boycott movement has garnered the support of the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills city councils, both of which have voted to condemn the country.

Agitation against Brunei-owned hotels began years before, when labor rights activists put the companies in their crosshairs over firing workers and hiring non-union employees. Now, labor organizers have capitalized on Brunei’s anti-gay laws, and cleverly adapted into a human rights campaign with big-time celebrities.

Along the way, though, some damage has been wrought: The Hollywood boycott movement has fueled ignorance of what Islamic law is and largely ignored Brunei’s role as a U.S. ally.

Brunei Investment Agency-owned hotels have been on the radar of some activists for years, though the activists have gained no traction. The agency has engaged in union-busting at the hotels it owns, sparking labor activists to attempt to organize workers. But practically nobody paid attention.  

Some Americans did start paying attention, when talk show host Ellen DeGeneres tweeted that she would boycott the hotel because of the imposition of a harsh version of Islamic law in the Muslim-majority country. Other celebrities like Jay Leno have joined in the condemnation.

The story began when the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, said recently he would impose an Islamic legal code on the country that includes death by stoning for a gay person convicted of homosexuality. It also includes the death penalty for extramarital pregnancy, alcohol consumption and hating the Prophet Muhammad. The mix of sharia law—which has also been inaccurately characterized in the press—and anti-gay punishments have formed the perfect storm for a U.S. boycott movement targeting Brunei, which is a close U.S. ally.  Brunei, which is oil-rich, is in negotiations to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, a corporate-friendly trade deal being pushed by the Obama administration.

The problem with Brunei-owned hotels—which include the celebrity-popular Beverly Hills Hotel and Bel Air Hotel—started long before this year, as Al Jazeera America’s Serene Fang and Michael Okwu recently documented. For years, the Sultan’s company has been laying off workers at his California hotels to bust unions. In the 1990s, the Beverly Hills Hotel was closed for renovations. The company laid off workers and hired non-union workers a few years later. Brunei’s investment agency did the same exact thing in 2009, though this time it was at the Hotel Bel-Air.

The moves captured the attention of Unite Here Local 11, a California union that represents thousands of hospitality workers. While the calls for labor rights didn’t spark much attention, people began paying attention to the hotels when Unite Here reached out to Cleve Jones, a labor organizer and activists for LGBT rights. Jones focused on the anti-gay angle, and then celebrities joined in.

“Thanks to social media, the union got its boycott, even if it had to wrap itself in a different cause to get results, and Jones is OK with that,” Al Jazeera America reported. Gay rights, with hefty support in Hollywood, is a sexier cause than labor rights, which have floundered in recent decades.

The other sexy part of the Brunei story is the word sharia. It’s not surprising that Islamophobic publications like FrontPage Magazine have lauded the Hollywood boycott, forging a de facto alliance with feminist and gay rights groups, which have blasted Brunei for imposing “Taliban-like” laws.

What goes unsaid in the outraged rhetoric is that sharia is a lot more complex than can be understood in angry sound bites. Brunei is justifying its harsh laws based on its own interpretation of Islamic law, but there are many different interpretations, as Scott Long, a fellow at Harvard Law’s Human Rights Program and the former director of Human Rights Watch’s LGBT rights program, recently wrote in PolicyMic.

Long criticized the boycott movement for ignoring that the most damage will be felt by women. Mainstream gay groups, he writes, “show no interest in building long-term coalitions with such movements — realistically, the only way to affect Brunei's politics and policy. They're interested in publicity and the satisfaction of speaking their minds. That's not change. That's catharsis.” Long added: “It endangers LGBT Bruneians by turning the dispute over the Syariah code into a battle solely of ‘the Sultan vs. the gays.’ It damages regional women's movements by relegating their campaigns again to silence.”

In the zeal to condemn Brunei’s anti-gay laws, Hollywood and its activist allies have spurned a holistic analysis of the problems in the country and its role as an ally of U.S. empire. The movement has left out labor rights and propagated an impoverished idea of what sharia law means.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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