Jewish World Review April 30, 2003 / 28 Nisan, 5763

Terry Eastland

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Iraqis have choice to make regarding religious freedom | Shia Muslim prisoners at New York's Fishkill Correctional Facility are suing state prison authorities. Their complaint is that the state, in accommodating the religious activities of Muslim inmates within its prison system, has favored one Islamic sect over another - Sunni Islam over Shia Islam.

The Shia prisoners point out that the only Muslim chaplains the state ever has hired, more than 40 in all, are Sunni. They argue that New York has violated the First Amendment by establishing a religion (Sunni Islam) and limiting their free-exercise rights.

The case has yet to go to trial. It may not. Yet whatever its outcome, the case, in light of events in Iraq, does catch your eye, doesn't it?

Here in America, we have a First Amendment, and it protects Muslims just as it does everyone else. Which means that Muslims, like everyone else, may go to court seeking its enforcement. Just as those Shia prisoners are doing.

Here, then, is a question, especially for the Shiite majority in Iraq:

Will the new Iraq be like America, its fundamental law guaranteeing religious liberty and providing the means for its enforcement?

Or will Iraq, a secular dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, become an Islamic theocracy, where religion is so rigorously established that religious liberty is nonexistent?

The Bush administration has made clear that the latter is unacceptable. As indeed it must be. The point of liberating Iraq wasn't to enable it to become a theocratic state. Democracy - one that protects the religious rights of all - was the goal.

But such a regime can't be imposed upon the Iraqi people. They are going to have to choose it. The United States, working with allies and other parties, can encourage the Iraqis to make that choice. But, ultimately, it is theirs to decide.

That point is highlighted in a document issued last fall by a group of Iraqi exiles meeting under State Department auspices on Iraq's future.

The issue of mosque and state, says the group's report, is one "only the people of Iraq can decide upon in the course of their deliberations during the transitional period." By posing questions on the issue "to each individual Iraqi," the report intends to confront Iraqis with the nature of the choice before them. The questions are exactly right.

The first is, "Do you want your future state of Iraq to be involved in any way in your religious beliefs, either by way of compelling or persuading you toward a particular belief?"

The second asks, "Do you want your future state ... to define individual Iraqi citizens as members of different religious groups" - as is done in Lebanon? That is, "do you think ... that an individual's religious beliefs are relevant to his or her rights and obligations as a citizen?"

A third question asks whether the new Iraq should "promote, regulate, direct or otherwise interfere in matters of religion" - such as through "control over educational programs."

A fourth question is, "Do you trust Iraqi politicians to give them any kind of influence or control over your religious affairs" - a query that to an Iraqi will recall how Saddam Hussein degraded Islam to advance his political agenda.

The final question asks whether "you think religious scholars ... have the knowledge and experience required to decide upon your political affairs."

The report concludes that if Iraqis answer the questions negatively, they "have in effect chosen to keep matters of politics and matters of religion separate from one another." Of course, if they make that decision, Iraqis then will have to write constitutional language designed to secure the separation of religion and politics - just as we did in our First Amendment.

What are the chances that the Iraqis will make the right choice? Iraq is 60 percent Shiite and 37 percent Sunni, with the Sunnis more or less equally divided between Arabs and Kurds.

There seems little if any sentiment among the Sunnis for an Islamic state. As for the Shiites, who were suppressed by Saddam Hussein, they now are freely (more than ever before) exercising their religion. And in their freedom some are demanding a theocracy like that in Iran, where Shiite clerics rule.

It would be a mistake to think all Iraqi Shiites would agree with that demand. The Shiites, after all, are intellectually diverse. And as for their clergy, they traditionally have been averse to politics and have proved capable of serious thinking on serious questions - such as the one now facing Iraq.

One must hope that the clerics will come out the right way - and that the Shiite majority will make the right choice.

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JWR contributor Terry Eastland is is publisher of The Weekly Standard.Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Terry Eastland