Religious freedom or chaos? Iraq at the crossroads

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Prospects for democratic freedom in Iraq dimmed this past week as uprisings by Shiite militants spread like wildfire from city to city.

Led by radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, thousands of young Shiites are taking up arms, determined to derail American plans for transfer of power on June 30 – and democratic elections in 2005.

Other than “hate America,” these Shiite radicals have a very different agenda from the Sunni extremists and Baathist remnants already fighting the U.S.-led coalition. But since Shi’a Muslims represent some 60% of the population, this latest insurgency seriously threatens the already fragile political process.

This is Iraq at the crossroads. If Sadr succeeds in provoking a popular uprising, Iraq is on the path to a bloody civil war in a Shiite-dominated Islamic state. But if coalition forces are able to contain the militants, democracy still has a fighting chance.

With so much at stake, it’s too bad we can’t turn the clock back 12 months and put a United Nations high commissioner, supported by a broad international coalition, in charge of rebuilding Iraq. It’s too bad we can’t start over and involve moderate Shiite leaders more effectively in the decision-making. And it’s too bad that we didn’t put enough armed forces on the ground to secure the peace.

We can’t go backwards – all we can do is dig in and finish the job.

But we should not transfer power, much less withdraw our military from Iraq, until we have done everything possible to secure religious freedom in a nation deeply divided by religious and ethnic differences. Without strong guarantees for the rights of minorities, democracy has no future in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the interim Iraqi constitution – signed in Baghdad last month – fails to provide such guarantees. And in the rush to transfer power on June 30, the American government appears willing to ignore this fatal flaw.

Defending the new constitution, American officials proudly point to language in Article 13 that gives Iraqis “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice.”

But this lofty commitment is seriously undermined, if not trumped, by the opening sentence of Article 7: “Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation.” Moreover, no law can contradict “the universally agreed tenets of Islam.”

Article 7 is a recipe for disaster. At best, it offers mere toleration of all religious minorities (including Sunni Muslims) by the Shiite majority. At worst, it opens the door to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that restrict or prohibit other faiths.

Some leaders of the Shi’a majority have already signaled that the new Iraq will be a Shiite Iraq. After many years of being in the hatches under Saddam Hussein (a regime dominated by the Sunni Muslim minority), the Shiites are eager to take the helm.

Even before the ink on the constitution was dry, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leader – was demanding changes to it. If protections for minority rights aren’t scaled back, he warned, he will condemn the post-June 30 government as illegitimate.

It would appear that for Ayatollah Sistani, Iraqi “democracy” must be understood as the rule of the Shi’a majority – where all laws conform to the “tenets of Islam” as defined by unelected religious leaders. In such a nation, there may be room to tolerate the presence of religious minorities. But there is no room for full-blown religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Sunnis and Kurds – not to mention the 3% of the population that is Christian – are increasingly anxious about the prospect of a tyranny of the majority. (Already some Christian women are anticipating life in the new Iraq by donning head scarves when they go outside.)

In the face of Shiite demands and minority fears, the Bush administration has apparently decided that an “interim constitution” with fatal flaws is better than no constitution at all. And turning over power as quickly as possible is viewed as the only way to extricate the United States from an increasingly violent power struggle between religious and ethnic factions.

But accepting the interim constitution as a blueprint for Iraqi democracy is wrongheaded – and could well doom any hope of religious freedom in Iraq.

We’re stuck with the interim constitution – and with the June 30 transfer of power to an Iraqi civil authority. To change either now would further undermine our credibility and the legitimacy of the Iraqi Governing Council.

But we’ll still be there militarily – and we’ll need to stay until a democratically elected government can stand on its own. That gives us an opportunity to use our leverage to enlist the United Nations and broad international support (including from nations that opposed the war) in support of building an Iraq committed to democracy and religious freedom.

This won’t be easy. It may take years to achieve free and fair elections under a constitution that truly separates mosque from state – and protects the rights of all faiths.

But we have no choice. Anything less would be an abandonment of the millions of Iraqis who long to be both safe and free – and a betrayal of the men and women who died for freedom and democracy in Iraq.

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