Sharia: Iraq’s Dark Cloud

Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" (Metropolitan Books, 2004) and director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York.

One of the more disturbing byproducts of the U.S. involvement in Iraq is the recent outpouring of rationalization from across the American political and cultural spectrum for the incorporation of Islam into the new Iraqi constitution.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about such rationalizing on the right. Vice President Dick Cheney responded predictably to January’s Iraqi election, which expanded the power of Shiite religious parties, with the declaration that “we have a great deal of confidence in where they’re headed.” What else is an architect of the war going to say?

On the Christian right, such reactions are even more understandable; these are the very people who routinely denigrate America’s own constitutional separation of church and state. Why should they worry if the new Iraqi government prevents a woman from divorcing without her husband’s consent and gives her legal testimony only half the weight of a man’s? As long as the Iraqis steer clear of a Saudi-style ban on all other forms of worship (read Christianity), a religion-based Iraqi constitution poses no logical obstacle for U.S. fundamentalists.

But the neocon hawks and religious right are far from alone in their sanguine view of Islam as the basis for a friendly government. Some on the left, succumbing to a patronizing multiculturalism -- freedom of conscience for me but not for thee -- are also spouting rationalizations for looking the other way if Islamic law, or Sharia, is imposed on the people of Iraq.

Many members of the new Islamic studies establishment in U.S. universities see objections to a union between government and Islam as one more example of American provincialism. “The mere mention of Islam in a constitutional context should not cause an overreaction,” asserts Frank E. Vogel, director of Harvard University’s Islamic legal studies program.


“This could be a legitimate cause for alarm, or it could be purely symbolic,” adds Vogel, whose official academic title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Adjunct Professor of Islamic Legal Studies.” (The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as it happens, is one of the official titles of the king of Saudi Arabia.)

But if history teaches us anything, it is that government enforcement of religious law has always been the natural enemy of individual and minority rights. One person’s religious symbolism may be another person’s real pain.

One of the “compromises” suggested by multiculturalists is a framework of secular law that nevertheless gives religious authorities full jurisdiction over sensitive matters like marriage and divorce. That was precisely the compromise that the new Israeli state made with Orthodox rabbis in 1948.

Although most Israeli law is secular, Orthodox rabbinical courts have near-total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce. A Jewish woman (even a non-observant Jewish woman) may divorce only if her husband gives her permission in the form of a get, a religious divorce decree. This “compromise” has consigned thousands of unhappy Israeli wives -- known as agunot, which literally means “chained women” -- to legal limbo. Without a get, a Jewish woman cannot remarry in Israel and her children from subsequent unions -- even if she marries abroad -- are considered illegitimate.

Does anyone seriously think that Islamic jurisdiction over family law will produce fairer treatment for Iraqi women than the Orthodox Jewish jurisdiction has produced for Israeli women?

In Afghanistan, the U.S gave in to the Islamic hard-line demand that the post-Taliban Afghan constitution prohibit passage of any law “contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.” Defenders of this Faustian bargain take comfort from the unwillingness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to enforce it. But what happens when Karzai is succeeded by someone who may not share his moderate views? A constitution that gives religion a “sacred” status offers a standing invitation for politicians and clerics to define sanctity for the rest of society.

Optimists about a church-state compromise in Iraq dreamily suggest that the new Iraqi government, whatever its constitution actually says about religion, will most likely adopt the de facto moderate course of Afghanistan instead of the repressive models of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Let’s hope so -- not for our own sake but for the sake of those Iraqis who yearn for personal freedom and do not want their lives controlled by religious fanatics.

The sad and disgraceful common strand running through the many rationalizations for an Islam-based Iraqi constitution is an implicit and, in the case of the Bush administration, explicit denial of the importance of secular Enlightenment values in American history. Without the administration’s constant political drumbeat equating U.S. patriotism with religious faith, it would be much harder to argue on behalf of theocracy in other cultures.

If we fail to honor the secular side of our civic heritage at home, it certainly follows that we cannot object to majority-rule theocracy abroad.