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 Theocracy Lite
 Katha Pollitt, USA
 September 1, 2005

So now we know what "noble cause" Cindy Sheehan's son died for in Iraq: Sharia. It's a good thing W stands for women, or I'd be worried. The new Constitution, drafted under heavy pressure from the Administration, sets aside the secular personal law under which Iraqis have lived for nearly half a century in favor of theocracy lite. "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation," Article 2 begins—the spin is that this language is a victory because Islam is not the source. "(a) No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." On the other hand, "(b) No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy" and "(c) No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution"—as in, for example, Article 14: "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex," religion, ethnicity and so on.

There's enough right here to keep a conclave of political theorists busy for years. Equal before which law? How can women be equal before Islamic law, according to which they are unequal? How can a non-Muslim be equal in a Muslim state? Who decides which Islamic rules are undisputed and which are, well, disputable? As with our own multiple versions of Christianity, doesn't that depend on which imam is holding the Koran? And what happens when (a) (Islam) conflicts with (b) (democracy) or either (a) or (b)—or both—conflict with (c) (human rights)? Don't laugh, it could happen. Fortunately, the Constitution has come up with just the thing to settle those knotty questions—a Supreme Federal Court "made up of a number of judges and experts in Sharia (Islamic Law) and law." As prowar pundits are quick to remind us, it's a lot like our own Constitution—except for the official religion part, and that's not for lack of effort by Justice Scalia.

Bush has professed himself delighted with the document. "This Constitution is one that honors women's rights and freedom of religion," he announced in Arizona, where he was taking a vacation from his vacation. The freedom-of-religion bit alludes to a slightly bewildering provision that seems to hold out the possibility of separate courts for each religion. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's ultra-Shiite Guardian Council, isn't too worried by this ecumenical gesture: "Fortunately, after years of effort and expectations in Iraq, an Islamic state has come to power and the Constitution has been established on the basis of Islamic precepts."

We don't yet know what any of this means concretely, but if Iraq turns out to resemble Iran—and boosting Iran's regional influence was another thing Casey Sheehan died for—women have a lot to look forward to: being married off at the age of 9, being a co-wife, having unequal rights to divorce and child custody, inheriting half as much as their brothers, having their testimony in court counted as half that of men, winning a rape conviction only if the crime was witnessed by four male Muslims, being imprisoned and flogged for premarital sex, being executed for adultery, needing mandatory permission from husband or father to work, study or travel. Bush supporters who find any of this disturbing—hello? Independent Women's Forum?—can console themselves with the thought that, as former CIA official Reuel Marc Gerecht said on Meet the Press, "women's social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy." Another plus: Ayatollah al-Sistani is antichoice. According to his website,, even a rape victim can have an abortion only if her relatives would murder her for getting pregnant. So Iraqi fetuses are all set.

Is this what all those purple fingers were about? They looked like a nation demanding democracy from reluctant occupiers but really they were making an ethnic and religious power grab? In 2004 Iraqi women's groups, quietly backed by then-US occupation chief Paul Bremer, forced the Governing Council to rescind Resolution 137, which would have replaced secular family law with Sharia. That was reassuring to those who wanted to believe that the US government was on some sort of Wilsonian human-rights mission. This time around we're supposed to take comfort in the promise of secular courts for those who prefer them, in the banning of honor killings and in the Constitution's transitional 25 percent set-aside for women in Parliament, even as Sunni and Shiite theocratic gangs assault and murder unveiled educated and professional women who venture out alone.

"We have lost all the gains we made over the last thirty years," said Safia Taleb al-Souhail, last seen sitting in the balcony with Laura at the State of the Union address, smiling and waving her purple finger. "It's a big disappointment." Even blunter words come from Dr. Raja Kuzai, an obstetrician and secular Shiite who served in the assembly's Constitution-writing committee and, as the President tells it, greeted him as "My Liberator" when she visited the Oval Office in 2003: "I think it is over now," she writes in the San Antonio Express-News. "I want the American people to know that our dreams are gone, our work was in vain. There will be no future for our children and our grandchildren in the new Iraq. The future is for the clerics. They will lead the country. . . . This is not the democracy we dreamed of. This is the dictatorship of the majority!" Dr. Kuzai has announced that she is leaving Iraq.

It always seemed a little strange to me that Bush was carrying the standard of secularism and pluralism and women's rights in the Muslim world when he is so keen against all three here at home. In the liberal hawks' fantasy war, Bush was the love child of Mary Wollstonecraft and Voltaire, striding forth to battle the combined forces of Osama bin Laden and Jacques Derrida. Sometimes I thought that to Bush, as an evangelical Christian, even the Enlightenment was better than Islam, the rival faith. But given the way things are turning out, it's clear that Bush's world is big enough for two kinds of religious mania: America gets creationism, Iraqis get Sharia. Fundamentalists get both countries, and women get the shaft.

"Subject to Debate" columnist Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms., and The New York Times. In 2001, her Nation essays were published as a collection, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.

From The Nation magazine, September 1, 2005.