New Constitution Threatens Iraq's Ethnic Groups

By Seymour, Richard | The Middle East, February 2006 | Go to article overview

New Constitution Threatens Iraq's Ethnic Groups


Seymour, Richard, The Middle East


IRAQ'S NEW CONSTITUTION, RATIFIED by referendum last October, is not without its controversy. While it is claimed by its supporters to enshrine the rights of all Iraqis regardless of their religion, ethnicity or sect, many among those very sects, religious and ethnic groups consider the constitution to be dangerously divisive.

Figuring strongly among the concerns is religious freedom. Sunni Muslims, greatly outnumbered by Shi'as, are uncertain they will be protected from persecution, which has been well-documented before, and since, ratification. Less well documented, however, have been the concerns voiced by Iraq's minority religions.

Of the 3% of non-Muslim Iraqis still in Iraq, most are Christian: among them Chaldeans, Armenians and Roman Catholics.

When the Iraqi constitution was put to the people, article 2.1 (a) was cited by members of the religious minorities as a threat to their religious freedom: 'Islam is the official religion of the state and a basic source of legislation.' It goes on to say: 'No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.'

This, say those who drafted the article, is balanced by 2.1 (b): 'No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution.' And by article 2.2: 'This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and the full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices.'

The question being asked is, does one article balance the other or are they in conflict? If they are in conflict, which will supersede which? The suspicion being that when the critical moment arrives, the rights of just 3% of the people will be brushed aside.

The worry is that the people of Iraq will one day be forced to comply to Shari'ah law even if they are not Muslim. It is not Shari'ah law itself that non-Muslims object to but the possibility that the rule of law will come directly from it.

Whether the constitution protects religious minorities or not, declarations made within it need to be supported by law which must then be enforced. But evidence from Iraq reveals that persecution of religious minorities is already taking place unchecked by a police force which is either unwilling or unable to intervene.

Article 14 of the constitution states: 'Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, colour, religion, sect, belief or opinion, or economic and social status.' The difficulty now is transferring this noble attitude from a controversial document to the public consciousness. With large sections of society dubious of the constitution this will prove a challenge. Churches have been attacked and Christians subjected to violence, both threatened and real, despite their 'protected' status as being 'of the Book'. You would do well to spend a day scouring the country for a single Christian who preferred life under Saddam Hussein, but it is true that it is in post-Saddam Iraq that their right to worship freely has been most vigorously undermined.

Many take the attitude that a certain level of anarchy must be expected and endured when a new country is being built from the rubble of an old and corrupt regime. And while they accept their current circumstances as part of the difficult process of rebuilding, it is the future that their misgivings are fuelled by.

Despite the antiquity of Christianity in Iraq--the religion can be dated to the first century of the common era--it appears the insurgents, regarding as they do the American-led invasion as a Christian one, cannot separate Iraqi Christians from the 'infidels' of the West.

Christians, legally free to sell alcohol if they wish, have been particularly targeted, with shops being destroyed and owners beaten as the emphasis among insurgents, in some areas, shifts from resisting American troops to religious and moral 'purification'. …

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