Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 August 2005
Issue No. 755
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The spectre of theocracy

Iraq is a battleground for many things, including freedoms of life against mediaeval practices of political religion, writes Faleh Abdul-Jabar*

The Arab world is worried about bombs, Iraqis about the constitution. The worries are all justified. Iraqis are scrutinising the Internet, the written press and television, hanging on to every word, indeed every letter. Never has the fight over words been so prolonged and complex. The process is at times progressive, at others mediaeval.

Iraqis are being exposed to new concepts, such as federalism, consensus, decentralisation, and other long- forgotten words. The intellectual polarisation involves a number of theses and antitheses. Islam versus secularism, centralism versus decentralism, nationalism versus federalism, are all open for debate. Most of the controversy centres on the relation between state and religion. More specifically, should Islam be a source of legislation, or the sole source thereof?

State versus mosque is a matter of relevance to this region. It has been so since the rise of political Islam in the 1970s. Unlike the case elsewhere the world over, constitutions across the Arab and Muslim world underline that "Islam is the religion of the state." Up to 1925, Iraqi constitutions did not have such references. The concept was introduced by the second republic, the constitution stating in Article 3 that, "Islam is the religion of the state and the main tributary of its constitution." The second republic also defined Iraq as a democratic state (despite the absence of elections) and a socialist one (though run by the military).

The insistence of conservatives on a constitutional reference to Islam, or Sharia law, recalls the insistence of the military on advertising their clan-based republics as "socialist" or "populist". The purpose, in both cases, is to deny ordinary people the right to have a say in politics.

Conservatives see secularism as a negation of religion, which is untrue. Secularism is not atheism. It does not mean that society has turned its back on religion. It is simply a method of drawing a line between state and religion. Secularism protects religion from state interference. It separates the political from the religious. In a sense, it introduces a division of labour. Some Iraqi secularists have begun to use words such as "man-made" and "civil" instead of "secular", for the latter word has been given a negative connotation.

Secularists, including myself, argue in favour of the modern state against those with a mediaeval take on the role of the state. In a traditional theological realm, the state collects tithes, protects its borders, and allows various sects to flourish under its all-powerful patronage. The modern state is one based on citizenry, on a constitution impartial to all, on a system without patronage. In the modern state, social services are provided to all people regardless of their beliefs. There is a difference between Islam as a religion and as law, but Islamists try to blur that distinction.

Religion is a complex structure, one in which specialised institutions produce theological knowledge. Religious schools differ on their take on theology, and therefore on law. The intellectual composition of any religion involves divine theology (the nature of divinity and creation), political theology (who gets to become caliph or imam), rituals (prayers, fasting, etc) and transactions (trade, marriage, etc). Some of these components have disappeared with time. Divine theology, intellectually stimulating as it once was, is no longer alive. Political theology traditionally gave the caliphate to Qureish (Prophet Mohamed's tribe) or the hidden imam (in the case of the Shia). Rituals differ from one school of theology to another. Governments should and normally do stay away from that sort of argument.

An understanding of Islam is contingent upon interpretation, which has conventionally been a pluralistic process. Throughout Islamic history, rival interpretations co-existed and were mostly tolerated by the state. Pluralism, rather than monopoly of the truth, is integral to the experience of Islam.

To demand that Islam be the sole source of legislation is to place the mullahs above the nation and allow a small part of the population to bully the rest. Religion is not just about concepts and rhetoric. It is about actual people making decisions amid conflicting interests and ambitions. It is about people with clan and friends in mind. Is there such a thing as a cleric who is utterly neutral? I don't think so.

The Islamisation of the constitution is an aspect of the Islamisation of society. The latter, as we know, is this bid to put women under the veil (women are always the first target), segregate the sexes, close down cinema theatres, ban music (music stores have already been attacked), shut down women's hair styling shops, and even force men to have a uniform hair cut (dozens of barbers in Baghdad and its vicinity have been assassinated).

The Islamisation of politics gives clerics a freehand to rule, with little regard for individual freedoms. The outcome would involve restrictions on what people eat, drink and wear. Apart from that, the Islamists have no programme. Their conservatism has struck a chord among rural ruffians who take pleasure in attacking city girls, and among people have turned psychopath under the pressure of poverty and marginalisation; those who go about beating college girls and shooting barbers.

The conservative alliance goes beyond clerics and traditional leaders. It involves people who see politicised religiosity as an opportunity for social climbing. In a country of many creeds, multiple values, and rich cultures, it is a recipe for disaster.

* The writer is senior fellow at the School of Politics and Sociology at Birbeck College, University of London.

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