BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – As the call for Maghrib prayers reverberated from the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque on the second day of Ramadhan, a group of Muslims and non-Muslims came together to break the fast, known as “iftar” in Arabic.

This gathering would mark the second time the As-Syahadah Muallaf — a community group formed by young Muslim converts — have organised an iftar event for non-Muslims, which initially began as a project to foster better understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities within Brunei.

However, this year, the event has taken on new life as it aims to break down cultural barriers and address misconceptions about Brunei in light of the implementation of Syariah law.

“The event comes on the back of the success of… the first iftar event for non-Muslims that was held last year,” said the group’s president Muhd Samira Razin Abdullah Sambut, adding that they plan to make the iftar a permanent fixture during Ramadhan.

Tourists and members of Brunei’s non-Muslim communities are given a tour of the Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Initially, the event was created to provide Muslim converts with the opportunity to share their experience of Islam and Ramadhan with their non-Muslim friends and family.

“It was for locals from the non-Muslim communities in Brunei which included a tour of the mosque as well as to a chance to break the fast with us.

“For some of the Muslim reverts, relationships with family members have changed because there is [a misconception] that once a person converts Islam, all ties with their non-Muslim life must be severed, but that is not the case.”

Muhd Samira Razin Abdullah Sambut, President of As-Syahadah Muallaf Youth in an interview with The Scoop. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Last month, when the group led a guided tour of the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Bandar, they were encouraged to create more awareness among international visitors of how Islam is practised in Brunei.

The call to broaden the audience for these tours was due to the intense negative media attention Brunei received after the government announced the full implementation of the Syariah Penal Code last March, which includes controversial punishments such amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for sodomy and adultery.

The sultan recently addressed the backlash saying there were many “questions and misperceptions” about the law, and that Brunei would not implement the death penalty, as a de facto moratorium has been in place for the past two decades.

Many tourists who attended As-Syahadah Muallaf’s iftar event on Wednesday admitted that after the news broke, they were hesitant to continue their travel plans to Brunei, fearing judgments from close friends.

Australian tourists Adrian Simon and Janet Lackey had booked their flight tickets prior to the announcement, but had friends discouraging them from continuing their travel plans.

Our experiences with places [tell us] that what we hear from the media may not always be true and at the end of the day, people are just people wherever we go. There’s always common ground to be found, said 36-year-old Simon.
Tourists Janet Lackey (L) and Zhixing Wanwan Fei (R) are given a tour of Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque by a member of the As-Syahadah youth group. May 8, 2019. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Lackey added that it is always a challenge to visit countries that have different cultural views and religions.

“I really wanted to see for myself what Brunei is really like. The people have been so lovely, so helpful.”

She said events like the the interfaith iftar can become an avenue for the international community to gain real insight into Brunei and to create a dialogue that would allow both communities to learn from one another.

Zhixing Wanwan Fei, a Chinese national who has been living in the United States for nine years, said she felt a moment of hesitation before coming to Brunei.

“I felt more conscious about posting my travels in Brunei because I was worried about what my friends would think of me,” said the 26-year-old.

After experiencing the “warmth and peacefulness” of the country, Zhixing felt the way Brunei has been portrayed in global media is not full picture.

She welcomed the opportunity for more interfaith dialogue, adding that when different communities come together to learn about each other’s faith it fosters better understanding.

As-Syahadah youth members demonstrating how Muslims perform prayers to visitors to ame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

Commenting on the international backlash, Muhd Samira reminded Bruneian Muslims to always welcome people “with open arms and kindness”, regardless of their cultural views or beliefs.

“[Bruneians] should not overreact because that will worsen the situation. Ultimately, we should have the mentality to always portray the beauty of Islam, to engage non-Muslims both locally and internationally and reach out to them.”