As Iraqis prepare for a referendum on their controversial new constitution, many Americans have voiced concerns about the possible emergence of a theocratic state there, in which unelected clerics control the country’s politics. The real danger in the Iraqi constitution, however, doesn’t lie in the power it confers on religion over the state; rather, it is the power that it confers on the state over religion.
The manipulation of religion for political ends remains the leading problem in the modern Middle East–and the central challenge for today’s Muslims. Islamic extremists–most notably, al Qaeda and its ideological affiliates–have cloaked their totalitarian lust for power in the language of faith, but the problem is by no means limited to Osama bin Laden. For decades, “secularism” in both dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and mere authoritarian regimes like Egypt has meant extensive state regulation of religion and people’s faith. For these “secular” governments, independent religious institutions represent a threat to their rule; subservient institutions, in turn, can be manipulated to legitimize their political actions. In this sense, extremist Islamists are actually not so different than the secular despots they yearn to overthrow; both sides view religion first and foremost as an instrument of power and only secondarily as an individual faith.
In the case of Iraq, the political attempt to “own” Islam can be traced to the British Mandate following World War I and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The British, eager to consolidate their hold in Mesopotamia, created a ministry of religious affairs in Baghdad, through which the state could “manage” Islam. In the modern Muslim world, “secularism” thus came to mean, strangely enough, that religion was a governmental, rather than civic, affair. State funds were used to build mosques and pay clerics’ salaries. And as government workers, clerics had to teach and preach what their employer wanted.
Under Saddam, for instance, a cleric’s failure to praise Iraq’s supreme leader in any Friday sermon would inevitably lead to his dismissal or imprisonment. Clerics, in fact, received weekly and monthly memos “advising” them on appropriate themes for their remarks. The government even began to determine which religious rituals would be allowed to be celebrated. It was not a coincidence that Iraq seldom celebrated the Fitr and Adha feasts on the same day with Iran during its war with Tehran, or with Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. Even the lunar calendar became a prison to geopolitics.
After the Kurdish uprising in 1991 and the establishment of a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, similar practices continued. The ministry of endowment and Islamic affairs kept paying clerics their salaries and in turn buying their allegiance, less in support of any Kurdish “national” interest but rather, in a contest between the two main political factions vying for control of the territory. During the civil war between the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, many clerics offered their religious blessing to whichever side was paying their salary. As power swung from one party to the other, the winner would fire unsupportive clerics.
This unfortunate dynamic has led Iraqi religious sects today to take a radical opposite stand in drafting the new constitution. Shias have imposed more sectarian rights and Sunnis, in reaction, have circled around their clerics. And this worries Kurds, since religion was often a Saddamian pretext under which they were oppressed. Thus, the abnormal relation between the state and religion will continue, harming both.
At minimum, let Iraq’s official name go without the word Islam. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam have done enough besmirch to this religion of peace. By calling itself the Islamic republic, the Iranian regime has tried to convince the world that its rule is holy, even though its behavior has been anything but. Although I hope and expect, as an Iraqi, that my country will ultimately develop a better model of governance than our neighbors in Iran have created, realism suggests that even a democratic Iraq will have its share of corruption, venal bureaucracy, and sheer incompetence. These, after all, are the unfortunate hallmarks of politics everywhere. To confer the name “Islam” on the Iraqi government and thus whitewash its flaws is both profoundly bad for the future of the state and profoundly bad for the future of my religion.
America’s Founding Fathers recognized that a separation of church and state was necessary not only to protect the state from religion, but also religion from the state. Churches, synagogues, and mosques in America are vital institutions of civil society–an independent space that can negotiate its own relationship, on its own terms, with temporal politics. To the extent that individual religiosity remains a powerful force in American society.
Iraqis could learn quite a bit from this example. Religion and government need to begin to part ways in postwar Iraq, beginning with the abolition of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Islamic parties, in turn, should make clear that their foremost allegiance is to the will of the people, from whom they derive legitimacy, rather than from clerics.
Islamists themselves should also be more discriminating about how they invoke religion to justify their public policies. Salahaddin Bahaddin, head of the Islamic Union, Kurdistan’s major Islamist party, recently told a reporter that, “any state governed by justice, equality, shura (consultation), and human rights represents the Islamic state, whether or not it is named so. And if these values and principles are lost in a government, it does not represent Islam, even if called so.”
This, indeed, is the real test for Iraq today. Rather than misguided fears about freedom from religion, Americans should instead be asking tough questions about freedom of religion in the nascent state, for whose creation they are paying a heavy price in blood and treasure.
–Bilal Wahab is an Iraqi recipient of a 2005 Fulbright grant. He is studying politics and good governance at American University.