Politics & Policy

The Road to Sharia?

Iraq's existential challenge.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the hard-won liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq more than the freedom of their women–symbolized by, for instance, the removal of burkas, sending girls back to school, and bringing women back into public life.

But nothing threatens that liberation more than a naïve understanding of Islamic factions–specifically how some Muslims interpret Islamic law as dominant over individual liberty, human rights, and freedom, especially for women and girl children.

I used to teach parliamentary procedure, which is based on the premise that rules of order for conducting a meeting must ensure that the majority prevails while seeing that the minority’s rights are respected and their views freely and completely expressed. Likewise, freedom means that all have the right to be respected and to express their views freely and completely. That freedom is the essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Those same individual freedoms are essential in the broader community or national context; democracy means that the majority prevails, though minority rights are fully protected.

Both individual rights and democracy are at risk now in Iraq, just as they were previously in Afghanistan. The new Afghan constitution is not all that it should be; it establishes institutional religious rights but fails to protect individual religious freedom. The new Iraqi constitution is not merely important for Iraq; it will also be a model for the whole Middle East. It must not be forgotten, then, that the November 15 agreement mandates religious freedom as an integral aspect of the new constitution.

Iraq’s Governing Council will complete the drafting of the interim constitution by the end of this month–February 28–and that constitution will be in place until the permanent constitution is enacted–not before mid-2005. At present, there are very real threats to the separation of church and state in Iraq: There is a big difference between the “freedom of worship” and the “freedom of religion,” just as there are significant differences between “religious rites” and “religious rights.”

Certain Islamist groups are seeking to establish an Islamic state and to bring back sectarian laws such as sharia (which directly affects women’s freedoms by limiting their involvement in public life as well as affecting inheritance and domestic laws). The conflict between the various Muslim groups is a power struggle with significant and long-ranging ramifications for freedom, democracy, and the equality of women. It is not an exaggeration to say that, ultimately, the outcome will determine whether Iraq remains free and whether Iraqi women and children will have equal status and opportunity as citizens.

Two prominent women in Iraq have already felt the strong arm of sharia. A woman lawyer in Najaf was dismissed from her job by a Shiite cleric who declared that judges must be “sane, mature, and male.” The woman deputy minister of agriculture, Dr. Sawson al-Sharafi, is under attack because some Islamists do not want to work for a woman.

In the same way, if Islam becomes the state religion, religious liberty will be curtailed by the extremists who are already introducing resolutions and proposals that seek to overturn religious neutrality and women’s equality. We must never forget that religious freedom is essential to democracy and individual liberties.

Nigeria is learning this lesson the hard way. Examples abound: 23 Christian women have been brought before Islamic courts, charged with non-compliance with the Muslim dress code, or prostitution (i.e., being unmarried and older than 13 years). At the University of Maiduguri in Borno state, female students have been forced to adhere to the Islamic dress code in order to sit for exams, and some are being expelled from the university for failing to do so. Eleven female nurses were fired in Azare when they refused to exchange their nurse uniforms for Islamic attire.

Individual religious liberty and women’s equality must be guaranteed in Iraq’s interim constitution, otherwise all that we have fought for in the Middle East will be lost–not just for Iraq and its citizens, but for the United States’s interests and democratic values as well.

Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at The Beverly LaHaye Institute, was a U.S. delegate to the 2003 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

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