How democratic will Iraqi democracy be?

Diana West
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Posted: Apr 21, 2003 12:00 AM

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 that included the outcome of the historic first vote in Saddam-free Iraq. The Iraqi proto-body voted to meet again in 10 days, and also voted on 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 meeting.

Meanwhile, there's something positive to be said about the plainspoken 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 society."

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 Shiite Muslim majority. At least one Iraqi Shiite 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 Shiite 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 (Prometheus, 1995), 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 God'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 European-style sharia with the surprising electoral success of the Union of Islamic Organizations, an Islamist group that preaches Islamic law for France, a place where 5 to 10 million Muslims 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 government table.

This prompted surprisingly tough talk from France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy: "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 republic."

Not yet, anyway. But who knows what can happen in a democracy?