Although the results of Iraq’s constitutional referendum were almost immediately cast into doubt by fraud allegations, Reza Aslan, whose bestselling book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam predicted a bright future for democracy in the Islamic world, remained optimistic: “Even before Iraq’s constitution was ratified, dire predictions were being made that it would pave the way for the creation of an Islamic theocracy. But whatever problems the new constitution poses for the future of Iraq, the role of Islam in the state is not likely to be one of them.”
Aslan maintained this even while noting that the Iraqi Constitution “establishes Islam as ‘the official religion of the state’ and ‘a basic source of legislation’; no law can be passed that contradicts ‘the fixed principles of Islam.’” Why shouldn’t this be a cause for concern? Because, he explained, “the constitution deliberately leaves those fixed principles to be defined by the natural democratic process in accordance with the changing will of the Iraqi people, and it unequivocally states that no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined by the constitution. Among the first of these is that all individuals have a right to freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience.”
Aslan thus seems to imagine that the “fixed principles of Islam” can be determined by a majority vote of the Iraqi people, and that in any case any elements of Islam that militate against “freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience” will give way before the Constitution’s guarantees of those freedoms. But in fact the “fixed principles of Islam” are not a matter of majority vote: they have been fixed for centuries, and contravene the freedoms enumerated by Aslan in numerous particulars. In fact, the Iraqi Bishops’ Conference was so concerned about the provisions of Islamic law that restrict the practice of Christianity and the freedom of Christians, that they issued a last-second plea to revise the document.
Freedom of conscience? The Western understanding of this principle — that one may hold to the religion of his convictions, or to no religion at all, and to change religions — contradicts the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s dictum, “If anyone changes his religion, kill him.” It is unlikely that “the changing will of the Iraqi people” on which Aslan places so much hope will overturn this principle. Although widely ignored in practice, particularly among those who leave Islam in Western countries, it has never been considered negotiable by the great majority of Islamic jurists throughout history. One Islamic apologist has asserted that an “Islamophobe in the U.S. even warned me that if I were to leave Islam I would be subject to a death sentence, which is absurd.” However, at a conference of ex-Muslim converts to Christianity in Falls Church, Virginia, in September 2004, security was tight because of death threats from Muslims.
If the power of Islamic law can be felt so keenly even in Falls Church, Virginia, can it be so blithely cast off in Iraq, as Aslan seems to envision?
Nor does Aslan seem to take into account the fact that for decades the exponents of political Islam have attacked democracy as a Western import in opposition to Islam and rendered unnecessary by the religion’s political and social legal superstructure. The Tunisian theorist Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi declared: “The heart of the matter is that no Islamic state can be legitimate in the eyes of its subjects without obeying the main teachings of the shari’a.” Rather than looking to Western models, Islamic states should look to their own tradition: “Islam should be the main frame of reference for the constitution and laws of predominantly Muslim countries.”
It is unlikely that men who believe this will lay aside Islamic principles and take up Western notions of freedom of religion. To the adherents of Islamic Sharia, that law does not contravene authentic principles of freedom of worship and conscience; its restrictions of non-Muslim religious practices and conversion from Islam are for them matters of simple justice.
Not a recipe for a thriving pluralistic democracy.