Freedom for All in Iraq

To the glee of Iraq’s religious minorities and women alike, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer suggested on Monday that he would block any interim constitution that would make Islam the chief source of law, as some members of the Iraqi Governing Council have sought.

Article 4 of the Interim Constitution of Iraq calls for Islam to be the official religion of the state and that Islam shall be considered “a source of inspiration for the law” — but not the main source for that law.

Until now, many women and religious minorities in Iraq feared for their future and have been frantically calling upon their U.S. allies to give them a voice on this issue. In a recent press conference on Capitol Hill, sponsored by Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), Iraqi Americans representing Christians and women of Iraq had an opportunity to express their concern over the language set forth.

“Even though on the surface, this provision appears to be reasonable, in the hands of an extremist majority, this provision can easily be exploited to use Islamic Sharia as a primary source for legislation,” said Joseph Kassab, president of Michigan’s Chaldean National Congress. “This is problematic and dangerous, not only to other religious groups that may find the laws of Sharia unwillingly imposed on them, but also to the protection of the rights of women, other ethnic groups and even other Muslim sectarian groups who may interpret various aspects of Islam differently.”

This week’s declaration by Bremer was likely the result of courageous efforts by various Members of Congress in recent weeks. Earlier this month, 45 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to President Bush urging him to act quickly to preserve women’s rights in Iraq. They wrote, “It would be a tragedy beyond words if Iraqi women lost the rights they had under Saddam Hussein, especially when the purpose of our mission in Iraq was to make life better for the Iraqi people.”

In recent letters to Ambassador Paul Bremer and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, signed by Sen. Rick Santorum, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), each articulated how Article 4 could be interpreted as a negation of the bill of rights, and urged that the language also specify other basic sources of law, particularly “the principles of democracy, pluralism, rule of law, and individual human rights.”

In the letter to Dr. Rice, the Senators pointed out that by omitting the key concept of individual rights to religious freedom, it jeopardizes freedom for women, dissidents, and religious minorities.

For instance, without this individual right, a Muslim woman’s basic legal rights could be determined by her family’s imam. They wrote, “Despite the provision in the draft guaranteeing gender equality, Iraqi Muslim women may not have the right to opt out of Islamic dress codes, or discriminatory inheritance and marriage structures.” Islamic law also allows for polygamy and often permits marriage of girls at a younger age than secular law.

The letter also explained how the section on “other religions” or non-Muslims provides only for the communal practice of their rites. This provision may allow for members of congregations to attend worship services, but could prohibit them from carrying a Bible, wearing a cross, or operating a religious school or hospital. This is of particular concern to Assyrian Christians, the indigenous people of Iraq. Assyrians lived under relatively peaceful conditions under Saddam since one of his top aides, former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, was himself an Assyrian Christian. However, according to Willeam Warda, head of the Culture and Information Department of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq, “a number of Assyrian Christian churches have begun to receive threatening letters and leaflets — and the threats appear to be credible.” “All the churches now are paying attention to these kinds of threats, and they are changing the time [of their services]. Even churches which used to hold meetings for youth and things like this are postponing them and neglecting some lectures for youth and for women.” It is likely that these threats are coming from Muslim radicals and insurgent groups who link Christians with the U.S. led coalition, and targeting them for their support of the troops, however under this proposed language, Christians and other religious minorities will be relegated to second-class citizens are they are in many Muslim countries.

Equally important and quite essential to democracy in Iraq is how the language could silence or even threaten the lives of reformers and dissidents. The Senators wrote, “Reformers and dissidents from prevailing orthodoxies would be vulnerable to state blasphemy prosecutions if they do not have individual protections for freedom of belief.” “Apart from the plight of these individuals, it is a matter of America’s own security interests to ensure that reformers are afforded the political space to identify, debate, and develop the more tolerant principles within the religion of Islam.”

At last week’s press conference, advocates stressed that women and religious minorities in Iraq need to see a clear separation between state and religion. They agreed that there should be a proper recognition and respect to Islam as the religion of the majority of Iraq, but at the same time include strong guarantees of freedom of religion for all individuals and especially for all other religious groups.

Individual freedoms to think and to believe are two of the most basic human rights that each person on the planet possesses. As President Bush said in his State of the Union address on January 28, 2003, “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”