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Religious freedom gap for Iraq?

Nina Shea

As Iraq begins the process of drafting a new constitution, religious freedom has not yet surfaced on the Bush administration’s short list of non-negotiable requirements for a post-Saddam Iraq. We must avoid the mistakes made in the new draft constitution of Afghanistan which omits the individual right of religious freedom altogether and paves the way for a judicial theocracy, despite press reports to the contrary.

Asked to outline the administration’s position on a constitutional guarantee for religious freedom at a Senate hearing, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded: “Iraqis will draft their own constitution. I cannot say what the outcome will be as the final product will represent a compromise between Iraqis of widely varying beliefs and ideologies.”

The administration has unequivocally pressed its terms on other controversial matters, such as the creation of a federalist model of government to satisfy Kurdish concerns. Mr. Wolfowitz’s diffidence on religious freedom suggests Washington’s relative indifference to this basic human right.

The administration’s position will likely be applauded by many as sensitive and tolerant, but Washington’s refusal to insist on guarantees of religious freedom threatens to undermine its already difficult task of securing a fully democratic government in Iraq. To be noncommittal about the central importance of religious freedom is to embolden those who hope to establish an Islamic extremist or fundamentalist state in Iraq. That those persons exist and wield influence, there is no doubt: Some of the most powerful members of the Governing Council drafted a blueprint for the new Iraq last December that granted certain civil and political rights on the basis of religious affiliation.

While Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy may not follow those in Iran in seeking office for themselves, they do expect the state to conform to their fatwas on everything from whether women can be family court judges, to whether members of the constitutional assembly should be appointed or elected. Some may believe denial of religious freedom will have a negative but limited impact on Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, constituting about 3 percent of the population. Indeed, fearing the future, Iraqi Christian leaders have insisted on constitutional guarantees for full rights to religious freedom and not merely the limited guarantee of a group right to worship proposed by some in the administration.

But Islamic states also deprive Muslims of religious freedom when they enforce blasphemy and apostasy laws. The nub of the problem is that Islamic law does not clearly differentiate between a dissenter, a heretic and an apostate. And this ambiguity clears the way for the state to exert its power in matters religious and political. As the recently issued U.N. Arab Human Development Report stated, “In Arab countries where the political exploitation of religion has intensified, tough punishment for original thinking, especially when it opposes the prevailing powers, intimidates and crushes scholars.” An example of such abuse was provided in Afghanistan last summer when the government brought blasphemy charges against two Muslims who had written an article critically examining the concept of “Islamic democracy.”

We must ensure that Iraq’s Muslims have the freedom to debate such sensitive issues as sharia, Islam’s compatibility with democracy and women’s rights. Without individual rights to religious freedom, Muslims in the Middle East may never be able to initiate the evolution of a more tolerant, pluralistic, pro-American Islam. To establish a foundation for religious freedom, Iraq’s new constitution must take the minimum following steps:

Include in its bill of rights the broad, individual rights language of Article 18 of the U.N.‘s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” It will guarantee the right to dissent from prevailing state orthodoxies and will allow all persons the full range of religious freedoms, including the rights to distribute literature, raise funds, conduct charities, designate leaders and educate children in the faith of the parents’ choosing.

Avoid using vague language that could be interpreted as establishing an Islamic state. For example, some administration officials are backing the declaration from Iraq’s 1925 Constitution that “Islam is the state religion.” Every Arab state whose constitution incorporates this phrase scores poorly in Freedom House surveys on civil and political rights. It is used to justify a range of policies for state-coerced Islamization, discrimination and even state-sanctioned persecution of religious minorities, as, for example, in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. It will be a portal for the introduction of intolerant, sectarian policies and practices.

Any recognition of Islam should be specifically worded or factual, for example, through provisions for the state observance of Islamic holy days and days of rest, an Islamic oath of office for high-level state positions, or that simply acknowledge Islam is the religion of the majority of Iraq’s citizens.

Reject the mandate incorporated in Afghanistan’s newly proposed constitution that laws must conform to the religion of Islam. This would enshrine the supremacy of a particular interpretation of Islam over individual rights and freedoms.

Civil administration chief Paul Bremer has correctly asserted that disposition of the religious question will be among the most important constitutional issues facing Iraq. Without individual rights to religious freedom, the citizens of Iraq may never be able to claim and refine other basic human rights in the years to come, and religious minorities may be pressured to flee.

At stake is no less than the ability of democracy to take root and flourish, and the ability of ancient Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and other minority communities to survive in their historic homeland. In undertaking the political reconstruction of Iraq, the United States will no doubt be forced to make hard compromises. Religious freedom must not be among them.

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