Jewish World Review April 21, 2003 / 19 Nissan, 5763
In Iraq, is democracy is in the eye of the beholder?
After roughly 100 Iraqi exiles, sheiks and clerics gathered
in a fortified and air-conditioned tent in Iraq this week to
begin piecing together their country's future, U.S. Central
Command headquarters released a 13-point summary of the
meeting. This included the outcome of the historic first vote in
Saddam-free Iraq (the Iraqi proto-body voted to meet again
in 10 days) and a string of high-minded resolutions.
Point one said "Iraq must be a democracy;" point three
said "the rule of law must be paramount;" and point four
stated that the country "must be built on respect for diversity
including the role of women." No word as yet on how
"respect" for "diversity including the role of women" translates
into legal or political rights; maybe that comes at the next
Meanwhile, there's something positive to be said about the
plain-spoken certitude with which some of these democratic
building-blocks are being laid out, at least on paper. But such
energy is lacking in another key point on the list. Point six is
downright phlegmatic which it comes to noting, merely, that
"the meeting discussed the role of religion in state and
It did, did it? Well, what did "the meeting" say? Nothing
that could be distilled into a declarative point of consensus.
Which shouldn't be surprising. The most intractable problem
facing democratic reform in Iraq (or anywhere else in the
Muslim world) is how to reconcile that founding principle of
democracy - the separation of church and state - with
Islamic law, which is predicated on the inseparable union of
religious and political power.
"Those who would like to separate religion from the state
are simply dreaming," a conference participant told the New
York Times, echoing a line that resounds with much of Iraq's
Shi'ite Muslim majority. At least one Iraqi Shi'ite cleric at the
big-tent planning session, Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din, however,
disagreed. "Dictators may not speak in the name of religion,"
he said, calling for a "system of government that separates
belief from politics." (Let's hope such a "system" is an
improvement on a dictatorship that is secular.) Sheik al-Din's
is a rare voice of dissent. More typical is the comment of
another Shi'ite imam to Agence France Presse: "Our
objective is to set up an Islamic state, because this is the
supreme ambition of all Arab and Muslim countries. All
Muslim countries would like to see their governments
applying sharia (Islamic law)."
This doesn't bode well for democracy, fledgling or
otherwise. As Islamic scholar Ibn Warraq explains in his
book "Why I am Not a Muslim," Islamic law "tries to legislate
every aspect of an individual's life. The individual is not at
liberty to think or decide for himself; he has but to accept
G-d's rulings as infallibly interpreted by the doctors of law, "
or clerics. Another problem is that Islamic law limits, or even
"denies the rights of women and non-Muslim religious
minorities." Which, of course, is no way to run a democracy.
We have already begun to see elements of sharia
re-introduced into post-Taliban Afghanistan, where, as
Freedom House's Nina Shea has warned, a "theological iron
curtain" is dropping across the country, even as the United
States pours in hundreds of millions of political and economic
reconstruction dollars. Will that happen in Iraq? It's too soon
to tell, of course - but not too soon to make ourselves
acutely aware of the possibility.
Nor is it too soon to develop a really good nose for
similar developments elsewhere. Citing an article in the Israeli
newspaper Makor Rishon, Cybercast News Service reports
that the new Palestinian constitution - the creation of which
is considered a prerequisite for reforming the Palestinian
Authority - defines not a democratic republic, but an Islamic
state. Not a good sign. And this week in France, La
Republique found itself taking an unexpected step closer to
sharia, European-style, with the surprising electoral success
of the Union of Islamic Organizations, an Islamist group that
preaches Islamic law for France, which between 5 and 10
million Muslims now call home. Having won a big chunk of
seats on the new Islamic council created by the government
to foster "an official (read: moderate) Islam for France," the
decidedly un-moderate group has earned its place at the
This prompted surprisingly tough talk from Interior
Minister Nicolas Sarkosy: "It is precisely because we
recognize the right of Islam to sit at the table of the republic
that we will not accept any deviation. Any prayer leader
whose views run contrary to the values of the republic will be
expelled." And there was more: "Islamic law will not apply
anywhere," he said, "because it is not the law of the French
Not yet, anyway. But who knows what can happen in a
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JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2001, Diana West