Iraqi Kurds Wrangle Over Islam

ARBIL – Disputes have arisen within Kurdistan over the role Islam should play in a new constitution.

The Iraqi national constitution asserts Islam as the country’s official religion and a major source of legislation. But not everyone wants that for a Kurdish constitution.

Secular forces call for a clear separation of religion from state, while the Islamists insist that Islam should be at least "a principal source of legislation" if not "the principal one."

Kurds have been running their own affairs for the past 16 years, but without a constitution. Divisions have surfaced now that they are going to write one.

Article seven in the draft constitution emphasizes the Muslim identity of the majority of Kurdistan people and recognizes "the principles of Islamic Sharia as one of the sources of legislation."

Secularists want to omit this reference to Islam and to the "Muslim identity" of Kurdish society, saying it will restrict the rights of certain social groups and of religious minorities within Kurdistan.

"Women will be most negatively affected by a religious constitution, and their rights in terms of divorce, inheritance, testimony, and others will be violated," says Sozan Shahab, a female member of the Kurdistan parliament in the regional capital, Arbil.

Shahab, alongside several other activists, has collected more than 4,000 signatures from Kurdish associations and political parties in a campaign to remove article seven.

Under Islamic rules a woman gets half of a man’s share as inheritance, and it takes the testimony of two women in court to equal that of one man.

An early version of the draft constitution, comprising 160 articles, was released last September. The Kurdish parliament has received more than 10,000 proposals to amend the draft. After approval by the regional parliament, the draft will be put to public referendum in Kurdistan’s three provinces, Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk. Lawmakers say this will happen next year or later.

The two powerful Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by the regional president Massoud Barzani, say they support a secular constitution. However, during the drafting of Iraq’s constitution they conceded to demands by Shia Islamic parties on a role for Islam.

That presents a serious challenge, since the Iraqi constitution says regional constitutions should not contradict the national charter. Kurdistan is currently the only autonomous region within the country.

"But, legally speaking, if you don’t mention Islam it does not go against the Iraqi constitution, since you haven’t alluded to its role in any way," said Shahab.

Islamists are equally fervent in rejecting a secular constitution, which they see as ignoring the will of the Muslim people of Kurdistan.

"Islam is not a religion that only concerns the personal and moral aspects of human lives," Hassan Babakr, member of the regional parliament from the Kurdistan Islamic Group, told IPS. "It is a comprehensive religion that has its own rules and program for all aspects of life, from social to economic to political and military."

Since Muslims are the vast majority of the population in Kurdistan, "the regional constitution should give a strong and prominent role to Islam," he said.

Babakr, whose party has six seats in parliament, criticized the KDP and the PUK for falling under "the hegemony of the U.S. and the West over the Islamic world" and the influence of "American military presence in Iraq."

In what was interpreted as a clear backing for a secular front, Barzani recently told a gathering of Christians and Yazidis – followers of an ancient Mesopotamian faith – that "religion ought to be separated from state."

The Kurdish region is home to tens of thousands of indigenous Christians and Yazidis, who all oppose an Islam-dominated constitution.

Amid campaigns and counter-campaigns to influence the draft constitution, both Shahab and Babakr say they will not give up until they find "success." But they do agree on one thing: they will not vote for a draft in a referendum if it is not what they want.

Read more by Mohammed Salih