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The Iraqi Constitution and The Trouble With Religion

21 October 2005

In a village near Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, my circus was invited to share lunch. the men were taken to tables on a shady veranda while I and Chnur were shown into a room where I was stared at for a couple of hours before one of the younger women eventually raised the courage to ask Chnur, "How can she be allowed to leave her country?" None of them were allowed to leave the courtyard, let alone the village.

The girls were removed from school at 9 years old into domestic drudgery punctuated only by a wedding ceremony. Boredom and misery were written on their faces even before they got around to telling me. They leaned longingly across an invisible line to wave us goodbye. The ‘liberation’ of Kurdistan, as that of Iraq, meant little to them: even when the grandfather-dictator / village sheikh died, he would be succeeded by a son who might or might not be more liberal.

Yanar writes that the draft constitution, on which Iraqis have just voted, "deceives the Iraqi people, since it asks them in the name of democracy to endorse a constitution which forces our society into misogyny and civil war" and which "undermines both the integrity of Iraqi society and women’s civil rights."

She goes on to say: "The clergy simultaneously support the scenario by encouraging the ‘yes’ vote in their well-timed public announcements. How is a religious constitution democratic if it denies women the civil and social rights given to men? If it deprives women from equality in matters of marriage and divorce? If it makes the permission of a man a precondition for women to work or receive education? How is it democratic if it legalises the marriage of female children? This is a constitution which does not recognise the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women because it contradicts a doctrine written fifteen hundred years ago."

It ties in with a book I’ve been reading, "The Trouble With Islam, by Irshad Manji. I should start by saying that I am not attacking the religion of Islam any more than I want to criticise all prescriptive religions. I’d read a book called "The Trouble With Christianity" as well except that, after a decade in Catholic schools, I feel like I already know about that.

Islam and Christianity alike were spread by military power, colonisation followed by conversion. Religions have always involved establishment and entrenchment of power in male elites, both intrinsically and culturally. After any bloody attack justified by religious rhetoric, be it Bush invading Iraq because God told him to or Bin Laden claiming divine backing for bombings, etc, more moderate followers of the faith in question say those extremists are not representatives of the true Islam / Christianity / other.

Of course, some of the less attractive aspects are, as is often argued, cultural rather than intrinsic to the religion. As I understand it, female genital mutilation is not required by anything in the Koran, for example. It’s a cultural practice. Other tenets are open to interpretation. Some parts of the texts are clearly or apparently metaphorical, others are contradicted elsewhere in the same book. Inequality between the sexes, though, is undeniably in there.

For example, the Christian and Jewish story of creation is overt in its statement that Eve was made out of a bit of Adam and the first couple’s fall from grace was her fault. The Koran is more ambiguous, saying only that life was breathed into a single soul and a spouse was created out of that soul. Nowhere does it suggest that Eve was the naughty one.

The Koran, though, goes on to say that "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other and because they spend their wealth to maintain them." Material spending brings authority – in effect women are material possessions of men, according to this view. Men are also informed that "Women are your fields" and counselled to "Go then into your fields when you please." So much for respect for women.

It continues that "Good women are obedient… As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart and beat them." [my emphasis] beat those from whom you only fear disobedience – sounds a lot like the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes to me.

Even Buddhism, which tends not to make such an unpleasant spectacle of itself, was founded by a man who declared women to be stupid.

Cultural or intrinsic, overt or implicit, religion remains a source of separation between people. Muslims, Christians and Jews each believe in the same God and many of the same prophets, stories and so on, yet each remains separate, each holding itself to be the only true faith. Within Christianity, the Protestants and Catholics, for instance, both consider their own interpretation the correct one, as do every one of the multitude of conflicting sub-divisions of either one; within Islam the Shia and Sunni people mutually believe the other is wrong in apparently significant details.

I remember being shocked during Ashura in 2004 in Iraq when a Sunni friend in his twenties, apparently rational, intelligent and modern, declared viciously as we passed a Shia mourning parade that the Shia were lying about what had happened the best part of one and a half millennia ago: not mistaken, not misinformed, but maliciously lying.

All this leads me off on a slight tangent: where do people get the idea that Muslims don’t kill other Muslims? They’ve been killing each other almost since the dawn of Islam, in Spain as in Mesopotamia. Perhaps worse, though, is the implication that it’s ok for someone – Muslim or anyone else – to kill someone who isn’t like them: for a Muslim to kill a Christian, a Jew to kill a Muslim, a black person to kill a white one or vice versa. Kill anyone you like, as long as they’re different from you in some key aspect.

One of the clowns, Peat, from the Boomchucka Circus that went to Iraq, worked with some kids in Sri Lanka affected by the tsunami. He texted me one day to say he was safe but the monastery nearby had been blown up by a militant monk from a different order.

Yet Yanar is right: in Iraq, as elsewhere, conflict is being deliberately engineered along ethnic lines. To go into every detail would take too long but, for example, January’s elections were set up to encourage voting according to ethnicity. Rather than elect a representative for a given area – a town, a district or a ward of a big city, for example - Iraqis voted for lists, from which would be selected the national assembly members.

The whole country was deemed to be a single constituency but, far from encouraging unity, it more or less imposed ethnic voting. Here is the main Shia list; here are the lesser Shia lists. Here is the Kurdish list. This list is Sunni but several key Sunni candidates have been barred from standing so Sunnis are encouraged to boycott the elections.

The system didn’t allow for expression of inevitably different interests between, say, urban residents of the Kurdish city of Erbil and rural inhabitants of villages near Suleimania. It did, however, actively accentuate ethnic divisions, a phenomenon which is furthered by many other methods – posting Shia police in predominantly Sunni areas, for example.

Commentators talk about a country sliding into civil war. The truth is, Iraq is being brutally shoved in that direction – by design or incompetence, I couldn’t say, I haven’t got that information, but I’m no conspiracy theorist. Perhaps ethnic and religious conflict make a handy smokescreen for the calamity that will result from the economic measures already imposed on Iraq, regardless of which representatives and what kind of constitution they choose; perhaps it’s just that the people in charge are stupid.

Yanar refers to "laws which will ensure women¹s … enslavement and degradation". She demands instead a secular constitution and laws. In "The Trouble With Islam", Irshad Manji writes, "Having been told that the Sharia represents Islamic ideals, most Muslims assume it’s holy." She goes on to quote another Muslim writer Ziauddun Sardar that, for the most part, Sharia "is nothing more than the legal opinion of classical jurists."

These jurists, says Irshad, were men belonging to the four schools of Sunni thought from the age of the Islamic empire when, under threat of attack from outsiders, the rulers subjugated independent thought – the concept of ijtihad - to the imperative of unity. Sardar argues that when Sharia law is imposed nowadays it is therefore "out of context from the time when it was formulated", creating "a mediaeval feel".

Therein lies the precedent for Yanar’s experience in which "the political forces which have thrived under the occupation set out to deceive the people in their publicity campaigns plastered across amply remunerated media screens, promising them peace and an end to terrorism if they all vote ‘Yes’ for the constitution."

Is independent thought again to be subjugated to the imperative of unity, for the benefit of someone’s empire or of the religious / male elites? It’s not only Iraq; it’s not only Islam – it’s the world and it’s religion and most of all it’s the power of elites and no resolution in the UN is going to make a real difference until we harness all our faculties of independent thought and action towards overturning that.

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