August 21, 2005

Religion in the Iraqi Constitution

Many people are concerned over the drafting of the Iraqi constitution and the role given to religion within it. I know why they're worried, but I think it's a relatively poor indicator.

It would be wonderful if a non-sectarian, non-religious constitution came out of Iraq. Religion has no need to be included in a legal document. It's entirely appropriate in a declaration like our Declaration of Independence or something along those lines. A declaration simply states what's going on and what we value. A constitution is a framework for the bounds and authority of the state, and the rights and avenues for redress open to the populace. Religion can be a valuable inspiration, but it's not particularly useful to codify explicitly sectarian values in law.

However, if the constitution does come out with religious gobbledygook about Allah being the supreme source of law, or the inspiration and reliance on the sharia, it's not immediately the end of the world or even of the democratic reforms in Iraq. The Egyptian constitution says the same thing: "Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)." Egypt is no picnic of a government, being deceitful, authoritarian, socialist and dictatorial, but it is one of the more secular countries in the Arab world. In fact, one of the main justifications that Mubarak and his supporters use to justify their anti-democratic rule is to ask democrats whether they want to let the Muslim Brotherhood into power. The constitution might say one thing, but that doesn't mean the government or the society is controlled by radical Muslims.

It might be something done for political purposes, it might be done out of habit and tradition, it might be done to undercut religious opposition, or it might be a sign of much more troubling things to come. I'm definitely rooting for a nonsectarian Iraqi founding document, but if one fails to emerge I don't think we should overreact to what it might mean. Let's not focus on what their rhetoric is, good or bad, and instead make sure that they protect the rights and privileges of their citizens.

Whatever happens, women got to vote in the last election. I don't think things are looking rosy for the religious zealots in Iraq, no matter what flowery phrases they might get inserted in the preamble.

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