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Iraqis Debate Islamic Law's Influence on New Constitution


A broad coalition of religious Shi’ite Muslims has won nearly half the votes in Iraq's election and will be the largest group in the National Assembly that is to write a new Iraqi constitution. Shi’ite leaders have said they want the document to be consistent with Islamic law, Sharia. But many secular politicians will be in the assembly and there will be serious debate about how much Sharia to incorporate into the constitution.

Although it is clear the Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance will be the single largest group in the national assembly, it will have to work with others in drafting the constitution. Whatever they come up with will have to be approved by at least 16 of the 18 provinces, including those dominated by Sunni Arabs and largely secular Kurds.

A key question, then, is how much Islamic law will become enshrined in Iraq's constitution, and in what form.

Islamic religious law called Sharia governs the daily lives of Muslims, including dress code, diet, marriage, and inheritance. Different schools of Islam interpret Sharia in different ways, secular Muslims are less strict in observing some of its tenets, and the prescriptions of Islamic law do not apply to non-Muslims. So Sunnis, secularists and non-Muslim Iraqis are concerned about what the Shi’ite alliance has in mind for the constitution.

One of the Shi’ite alliance's leading contenders for prime minister, Dawa Party leader and Iraqi Interim Vice President, Ibrahim Jafari told VOA the constitution needs to be consistent with Sharia, but he does not expect it to be the only influence.

"I think we have to do our best to be far from anything against Sharia,” he said. “Nothing. Otherwise, we are flexible. There are very wide areas, and we can deal with many things in our society. Of course, because our society, the majority of them, more than 97 percent, they are Muslims, so it is expected that you have to mention in the constitution that the official religion is Islam."

But what is "consistent with Sharia" is open to interpretation. There are several factions within the United Iraqi Alliance, and insiders say they have different ideas about how much Islamic law should be written into the constitution.

Mr. Jafari and other alliance members say they do not envision an Iranian-style system for Iraq, with direct rule by a group of senior clerics.

"So we have here, we have a special experiment, we have special characters in our society,” he noted. “We cannot do implanting and cloning of Iran or Turkey to Iraq. We have to open our peoples, and give them a chance to do what they believe."

It is clear that the clerics will influence the writing of the constitution, even if they are not directly involved in governing the country. A key figure will be the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shi’ite cleric in Iraq. One of his Baghdad representatives, Sheikh Abbas al-Rubaie, acknowledged the ayatollah's influence over the process.

He says, "Sayyid Sistani will not intervene himself in the writing of the constitution, but he will supervise it through is representative in the national assembly."

The sheikh adds that the constitution will need to respect the religious beliefs of all Iraqis, Muslim or Christian, Shi’ite or Sunni.

He also says drinking alcohol could be outlawed, and women could be required to cover their heads and forbidden from wearing makeup, whether they are Muslims or not. That possibility worries many secular Iraqis and non-Muslims.

But it is not certain Shi’ite Islamists could get such prescriptions written into the constitution, if they want to. Outside the Shi’ite coalition, there is resistance

The second largest group in the National Assembly will be the secular Kurdish alliance. Kurdish interim Vice President Rowsh Nuri Shawis indicates that his group is not interested in enshrining Islamic law into the constitution.

"First of all, the federal issue is one of the most important issues,” he said. “Second, the democratic issue: This federal state should be democratic and secular."

Some secular Arabs doubt the Kurds commitment to establishing a secular state in all of Iraq, fearing that they could be content with a federal system where the laws governing Kurdish regions could differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.

Many residents of Baghdad, both Shi’ite and Sunni, express some skepticism and even outright fear about the possible establishment of a clerical state in Iraq. Some people do not seem familiar with the moderate rhetoric being espoused by many of the Shi’ite leaders, while others do not seem to believe they mean what they say.

University student Amer Mohammed Moadh, who is studying international relations, says he thinks Iraq is on its way to becoming a religious state to some degree, and he does not like the idea.

"If you ask me why I do not want religious rule here in Iraq, despite my Islamic roots, it is because I think if the religious leaders come to power, they will favor one group over the other,” he said. “Secular rule would include all the different ethnic and religious groups."

Some Shi’ite clerics also worry the Iraqi constitution will be too heavily influenced by Islamic law. One is Ayad Jamal al-Din who is dismayed at what he foresees for Iraq's constitution, given the Islamists' dominance.

"Simply put, the constitution is not going to be a secular one,” he predicted. “We are going to have an artificial democracy. It is not going to be democracy. Real democracy is always parallel to secularism."

Ayad Jamal al-Din is a Shi’ite religious scholar, dressed in clerical robes and wearing the black turban of a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. A set of prayer beads clicks rhythmically in his right hand. But despite outward appearances, he is a staunch proponent of establishing a thoroughly secular state.

"You cannot implement real democracy without secularism,” he noted. “Democracy is not just elections. It is a system for the whole nation. Democracy has so many elements: free economy, culture, human rights, separation of powers. And all people should be equal before the law. This is secularism."

In the past, Sayyid Jamal al-Din has been a steadfast defender of America's intervention in Iraq, believing it would lead to a secular democracy. But he is now disappointed with the way he thinks things are headed. He says the Americans have refrained from pressing for a secular state because they are afraid to clash with the religious leaders.

Sayyid Jamal al-Din continues to believe that most Iraqis want a secular state. He just no longer believes they are going to get one.

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