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, say, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’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.