Today's date:
Summer 2006

The Iraqi Constitution Is Theocracy in Disguise

Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, a Shiite cleric, is a member of the Iraqi parliament from the Iraq National Party. Until Saddam’s fall, he lived in exile in Iran and also in Dubai, where he headed the largest mosque. He spoke with NPQ in April.

NPQ | Kanan Makiya, a secular Shiite and key Bush ally who supported the United States overthrow of Saddam, has become disillusioned. He believes the leadership of the Shia majority has acted “irresponsibly” by not rising above “their own sense of victimhood.” He argues that Shia, now that they are dominant, are prompting civil war by not taking into account the interest of others. Do you agree with this?

Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine | What is at issue today is not a bigger role for the Shia in a strong, centralized state; they are, after all, the majority and that is natural. The issue is how federalism will be implemented, and what the relationship will be between the regions and the center.

For example, if oil resources all end up in the federal jurisdictions controlled by the Shia and the Kurds, the Sunnis will feel permanently marginalized. Another example: Will the Kurds be able to keep their 70,000-member militia outside the national armed forces, which is what President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) has suggested? That won’t work if all the other militias are expected to submit to national authority.

NPQ | There is growing pressure among the U.S. public to withdraw troops from Iraq. Do you see that happening anytime before President Bush leaves office?

Jamaleddine | No. The US troops will have to be in Iraq beyond the Bush presidency until the Iraqi national army is fully established and becomes effective. For the US to leave before that would lead to total anarchy. They still are the key to even the minimal equilibrium that exists today.

The US should not have come to Iraq if it did not intend to stick it out. After all, it didn’t just destroy the government when it came, it destroyed the state! It will take a lot of time and patience to rebuild from scratch, which is what we are doing.

NPQ | You are famous for being an imam who promotes secularism, saying that you want to “free Islam from 14 centuries of tyranny at the hands of the state.” Does the current constitution fit your definition of secular?

Jamaleddine | No, it doesn’t. Our current constitution is non-secular. In my view, the state cannot be religious. It can’t pray. Only you and I can. All the state can do is manipulate religion for its own power and politics, to try to compel people against their will, which is what has happened for so long in this part of the world. You can’t compel devotion. Faith is a free act between you and God. So, religion should be free from the state, and everyone should be free to believe what they want.

Now, the current Iraqi constitution says that “Islam” is the source of legislation, which is fine. Then it says that no law can contradict the fixed principles of Islam. The problem here is that this immediately runs into conflict with international norms and convention, for example, banks charging interest.

But who decides if that is the case? The constitution establishes a Supreme Court made up half by judges who know secular law and the other half by experts in sharia. They are appointed by the president who submits their names to parliament for approval, but the sharia experts, of course, are nominated by the highest Muslim religious leadership.

That means that these religious judges have the right to veto laws promulgated by the elected parliament. That is not democracy, that is “religious guardianship,” like they have in Iran, only in other clothing. It is this specific issue which has pitted the West against Iran for 25 years.

In the months following the formation of a government, we will have a chance to amend the constitution. Resolving this issue will be a top priority.

This separation of religion from the state has always been the Shia tradition up until Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. Before that, the Shia never had political power and didn’t seek it.

NPQ | Are the Shiites in Iraq today more Shiite than Iraqi?

Jamaleddine | Shiites are more Shiite than Iraqi. Sunni Arabs are more Sunni than Iraqi. Kurds are more Kurdish than Iraqi. No question. Even so, there is still a national resonance. I remember witnessing the country erupt in common celebration when Iraq’s soccer team beat Syria, even singing an old song from the Saddam era praising Baghdad. That day, everyone was an Iraqi.

NPQ | What impact are these debates over democracy vs. religious guardianship in Iraq having on Iran next door?

Jamaleddine | They are looking at the blood being shed every day in Iraq, and they say, “This is the result of democracy.” Safety under guardianship for them is much better than blood and democracy. Whatever we might think, the Iranian people love the Iranian system.

This is true of the 70 percent of Iranians who live in the villages and it is true of the mostly poor city dwellers as well. Only the minority of the educated and moneyed think otherwise. The West has to come to grips with the reality: The Iranian people want the government they have.

NPQ | The looming new threat to chaos in the region is the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. What is your view on this?

Jamaleddine | Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. It is Islamic and dictatorial, yet no one makes a big fuss about it. Iran is a big country with a very old civilization. Despite the religious guardianship, Iran’s political system is more democratic than Egypt’s or Saudi Arabia’s. There are women in the Iranian parliament and even as vice president. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than anything in the Arab world aside from Iraq.

Even Iranians who opposed the government are in favor of the nuclear program, including monarchists who live in the US.