American troops have fought hard and continue to shed their blood to free Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime that oppressed the Iraqi people, threatened Iraq’s neighbors, and supported global terrorism. Now the vision for a new Iraq, and indeed, a new Middle East, is a free, democratic society, governed by the rule of law, in which individual rights are protected.
Individual rights, protected by law, mean respect for fundamental rights, including faith and conscience. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees “the right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” These God-given, in-alienable rights must be enshrined in Iraq’s transitional administrative law and new constitution.
At this writing, Iraq’s interim constitution is in place, protecting individual rights for religious and minority groups. The interim constitution cannot be amended until ratification of a permanent constitution in mid-2005.
But concerns remain, echoes of hard-line policies that threaten the overall prospects for a more moderate and democratic Iraq. On December 29, the Iraqi Governing Council passed Resolution 137, making civil and family law subject to Shari’a, or Islamic, law. If implemented in the final constitution, this decree would reduce Iraqi women to second-class status and severely undermine free-dom of religion in Iraq.
At stake is the survival or extinction of some of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. By Vatican estimates, between one-quarter and one-third of all Arab Christians in the Middle East have fled their homelands in just the last ten years.
Iraq’s largest non-Muslim group is the Chaldean Church, an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church that traces its founding in Iraq directly to the apostles of the first century. Iraq’s Chaldean population has dwindled to about 700,000, and Chaldean-Americans are gravely concerned about mounting persecution of their Iraqi brethren by Islamist extremists.
Clearly, where religious freedom is denied, so too are other basic individual rights, freedoms President George W. Bush calls “nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.” These rights are the key to a stable, prosperous, and pluralistic Iraq, at peace within itself and with its neighbors.
Whether the new Iraq succeeds or fails will depend in large part on the outcome of this fight. Effective constitutional safeguards for the rights of religious, ethnic, and political minorities are of paramount importance, not only for Christian, Jewish, and Sunni Muslim minorities but also for the Shi-ite Muslim majority, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the sectarian and theocratic political models being pressed by Islamist groups under the direction of Iran’s mullahcracy.
Resolution 137 runs counter to the stated desire of the Bush administration to see a liberal democracy rise out of post-Saddam Iraq. Our November 15 agreement with the Governing Council requires that the interim constitution contain religious freedom as an essential element. Such proposals to overturn religious neutrality must be rejected.
Iraqi women and religious minorities have led protests against the re-solution. Fearing the power of the organized Shiite religious bloc, some pro-democracy activists are calling for a bill of rights and a revised timeline for the implementation of democracy in Iraq in order to prevent codification of the resolution.
Individual rights—not rites— must be the foundation of a new Iraq. Democracy requires that no ethnic group, gender, or class of people be excluded from the political process. For democracy to take hold, Iraq’s constitution should both provide power to the majority and protect the rights and interests of minorities. It is imperative that Iraq’s leaders make clear from the outset that basic human rights adhere to individuals, not to the state or religious leaders.
The most dangerous constitutional formulation would be a repeat of the mandate incorporated in Afghanistan’s new constitution that laws con-form to the provisions of Islam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom commented that the new Afghan constitution raises the specter of a “judicial theocracy.” Such clauses would enshrine the supremacy of a particular interpretation of Islam over individual rights and freedoms.
This mandate in no way is an attempt to deny the importance of Islam as the majority religion in Iraq. Respect for individual rights empowers Muslims and all religious communities to follow their faith. A democratic system based on a secular government and religious polity means that Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, are free to live their lives as they see fit within the law, without fear of oppression.
To fulfill the promise of a free Iraq, the United States must continue to hold the Governing Council to the agreement struck on November 15. The stakes are high. For better or worse, Iraq will be the new paradigm for the Middle East.
Iraqis must govern Iraq. It is our responsibility—not least to the brave American men and women fighting there—to see that the constitution we leave behind does not enshrine a religiously repressive state but respects global principles of human dignity.