Today's date:
Spring 2006

The Iraqi Constitution: A Model of Islamic Democracy

Reza Aslan is a scholar of religions and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam (Random House).

Even before Iraq’s constitution was ratified, dire predictions were being made that it would pave the way for the creation of an Islamic theocracy. But while there may be a number of issues in the constitution that could conceivably pose problems for the future of Iraq, the role of Islam in the state is not likely to be one of them.

The truth is that despite grumblings from those who were expecting a secular, liberal democracy to arise fully formed in the midst of a bloody and chaotic occupation, the constitution of Iraq is nothing short of a miracle. This is an enlightened charter of laws written in a lawless country embroiled in a civil war, whose framers were literally dragged onto the streets and beaten to death between meetings. And yet, in spite of the odds, Iraq’s leaders have drafted a constitution that reflects the values, interests and concerns of an overwhelming majority of a fractious population in a fabricated country that has never known anything resembling genuine democracy.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iraq’s constitution is the way it has managed to balance the religious identity of the people (96 percent of whom are Muslim) with the requirements of democratic pluralism. Article Two of the constitution establishes Islam as “the official religion of the state” and “a basic source of legislation,” meaning that no law can be passed that contradicts “the fixed principles of Islam.” However, not only does the constitution deliberately leave those fixed principles to be defined by the natural democratic process in accordance with the changing values and sentiments of the Iraqi people, it unequivocally states that no law can be passed that contradicts the basic rights and freedoms outlined by the constitution. Among the first of these is that all individuals have a right to complete freedom of creed, worship, practice, thought and conscience. True, a constitution does not a democracy make. Still, as the template for a stable, viable, pluralistic and distinctly Islamic democracy, Iraq could not have hoped for a better founding charter.

Of course, there are those for whom the very term “Islamic democracy” is an oxymoron that evokes frightening images of Afghanistan under the Taliban, the puritanical Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia or the clerical oligarchy in Iran. But an Islamic democracy means neither a theocracy in which the Koran is the sole source of law (as in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan) nor a “theo-democracy” in which the state is run by religious authorities (as in Iran). An Islamic democracy denotes a democratic system dedicated to the ideals of pluralism, human rights, constitutionalism, popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the separation of powers—all of the principles that make a society democratic—yet founded upon a distinctly Islamic moral framework.

This is by no means a new paradigm. A large number of democratic states are founded upon a distinctly religious moral framework. England maintains an official church whose spiritual head is also the country’s sovereign and whose bishops serve in the upper house of Parliament. Israel is founded upon an exclusivist Jewish identity and offers all the world’s Jews, regardless of nationality, immediate citizenship as well as a host of benefits and privileges not enjoyed by its non-Jewish citizens. And while the United States does not have an established religion (though President George W. Bush proudly traces his ideological roots to a Texas Republican platform whose charter explicitly states that “the United States of America is a Christian nation”), the language with which issues such as abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia are debated in the halls of Congress surely indicates that, at the very least, America’s unapologetically Christian values form a “basic source of legislation,” to quote the Iraqi constitution.

All of the above countries are considered democracies not because they are secular, but because they are, at least in theory, dedicated to pluralism. It is pluralism—the peaceful coexistence and legal equality between different ethnic, religious or political ideologies—that defines democracy, not secularism. Indeed, a democratic state can be established upon any religious framework—Christian, Jewish or Muslim—as long as it is founded upon an inviolable respect for pluralism, as we can only hope the new Iraq will be.

Certainly, problems can arise when religion plays a role in the state, and there may be instances in which the religious rights of individuals will be curtailed by the majority moral values of the state, but that is true of all democracies. Moreover, there will always be groups who will try to use religion to promote their own social and political agendas—like, for instance, those who seek to curtail the rights of women. (In Iraq, the framers have tried to preempt this possibility by allotting more legislative assembly seats for women than there are female representatives in both houses of the US Congress combined.)

But the fact of the matter is that, whether we like it or not, Islam is going to play a significant role in shaping the democratic development of large parts of the Muslim world. This should not only be viewed as inevitable, it should be welcomed. After all, any democratic state, if it is to be viable and lasting, must reflect the values and traditions of its constituents.

The path toward democracy is long and grueling, and Iraqis have only just embarked upon it. In 250 years of democracy, the US has still not come to terms with what role religion should play in the state. Perhaps Iraq should be allowed a few more days before it is judged a failure.