Religion returns to post-Saddam Iraq

Posted: Apr 16, 2003 12:00 AM

It would be Saddam Hussein's worst nightmare - little children reading the Bible or the Koran in their homes and adults openly discussing their religious beliefs. That's what may soon come in the land that birthed Judaism and Christianity.

For decades, Hussein allowed for little religious freedom. Though Iraq is ostensibly a Muslim nation, Hussein followed the Stalinist model and required total obedience from his people. That left little room for religion since any independently accepted moral authority would threaten the supremacy of the state.

Those wishing to worship anything other than the state were imprisoned or killed. "For decades, they (Hussein's government) have conducted murders, summary execution, arbitrary arrests and protracted detention against the Shi'a religious leaders and adherents," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, referring to the religious majority that Hussein's forces brutally and arbitrarily persecuted. "In addition, the government sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian groups," added Boucher.

The state was the only sphere of influence. One omnipotent leader, one nation, one oppressed people. Religion merely became an expression of sovereign power, a useful tool to neuter the public and squash any potential threats. Repressive religious customs and taboos were forced on the public by decree. The people followed, not because they believed, but because they feared for their lives.

This sort of oppression always occurs when the state attempts to enforce the will of God. The Nazis also used vague moral codes and quasi-theocratic rhetoric to maintain their power base. As does the Taliban. Lacking a constitution to arbitrate religious freedom, the law and religion quickly become subject to the brutal whims of tyrants.

The other Arab nations are not enthusiasts of Saddam's ersatz religion and have long rejected him as a secular leader who uses religion only as an instrument of tyranny. Far from a Muslim state, Iraq under Saddam's rule has been a nation of one man's law - mostly bad.

That is changing. Last week, liberated Shiite Muslims danced in the streets, celebrating the birthday of Muslim martyr Imam Hassan. Saddam had previously forbidden the celebration of this Muslim holiday. On April 25, millions of Shiite Muslims will pour into Karbala to commemorate the martyrdom of former Shi'a leader Imam Husayn. Other religious pilgrimages will likely follow.

We are witnessing something rather profound in Iraq - the opportunity for religion to be deeply felt, not simply adhered to with the hollow consistency of the brainwashed. There, in the Fertile Crescent, along the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where civilization was formed 6,000 years ago, religion is again blossoming.

Perhaps soon the citizens of Iraq will be able to enjoy those basic freedoms so aptly expressed in Article 18 of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The freedom to leave one's religious preferences to one's conscience, rather than the arbitrary dictates of the local tyrant, bodes well for the Iraqi citizen's ability to achieve something rather extraordinary - basic human rights.