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Opting Out of Arabism in Iraq By: Barry Rubin
Gloria.idc.ac.il | Thursday, September 08, 2005

Several heated controversies have erupted over Iraq's new draft constitution and they are worth exploring in detail. After all, the outcome may determine both the fate of the great U.S. experiment in promoting democracy in the region as well as the direction of a country that has considerable strategic importance.

The most intense debates have broken out over the extent of Islam's role in the new system, if decentralization would endanger the survival of the unified state, and whether the Sunni Muslim Arabs are left with too little power.

Given the situation, the provisions regarding Islam are not as bad as some are suggesting. The general Islamist position is that Islam should be the main (or only) source of law. Under Iraq's constitution it is "a main source," which is certainly not secular but is a formula accepted by many Arab moderates elsewhere.

Other provisions are a balance. Laws cannot contradict Islamic standards but they also cannot be in conflict with democratic standards or with the rights and freedoms promised in the constitution. Iraq's people are defined as having an Islamic identity but all religions are promised full freedom.

All these definitions are going to be left to elected governments and it is the outcome of elections which will determine precisely where the lines are drawn. But it is hard to see how things could have come out differently given the viewpoints and forces in Iraq today.

There is one other fascinating definition of identity: the Arabs of Iraq--and not Iraq as a whole--is said to be part of the Arab nation. This detail is psychologically explosive on a regional level. It means that non-Arab groups can opt out of Arabism. Arab nationalism would thus become a form of ethnic sympathy rather than national policy. This would be a real nail in the coffin of the way the Arab world has been organized in the past half century.

Regarding communal relations within Iraq, the constitution is very tolerant. Arabic and Kurdish have joint status as official languages, while Turkoman--a point that should please Turkey--and Assyrian will have equal status in regions where people who speak them live.

It is important to remember that federalism is completely unknown in the Arab world. Strong central governments have been seen--with good reason--to be the only protection against anarchy and the collapse of the state. Therefore, it is understandable that few Arabs think it will work in Iraq, and they might be right.

Still, the constitution has some very original features in regard to federalism. On the important and controversial question of dividing oil revenues, there is to be a commission including members from all national and regional government bodies to set up the system for apportioning wealth. This is also a gesture toward the Sunni, whose areas have no oilfields. The principle set forward is that the distribution of money should be in proportion to the population in every area of the country.

Another unique feature is that provinces have the right to set up regions and regions have the right to merge. This can be done by the demand of voters or legislators and on paper such a decision looks easy. Each region will have a president and a National Assembly that will write a constitution which must not contradict Iraq's national laws or constitution.

By making this process simple, presumably the goal is to make groups feel secure that they can get a degree of local self-rule if they want one. There is nothing to prevent Sunni Arabs from setting up their own region, too.

Apparently, though, the Sunnis fear comes not so much from a threat to their communal life but to the centralized system that they have dominated in the past. In practice, though, the proposed constitutional order might be far more beneficial for them than a centralized system putting them at the mercy of a Shia and Kurdish majority. Their problem is adjusting to the fact that as a minority--perhaps only 20 percent of the population--they would benefit from a system entrenching minority rights.

The constitution also offers a wide range of human rights, prohibiting torture, promising freedom of expression and the press, and so on. One-quarter of the seats in the Council of Deputies are supposed to go to women, a remarkable development in an Arab and Islamic country and a certain protection for women's rights, despite the greater role for Islam in shaping the country's laws.

There is also a fascinating hint which may just be a rhetorical flourish or could be of great future significance: "Iraqis are free to abide in their personal lives according to their religion, sects, beliefs or choice. This should be organized by law."

What this suggests is that rather than impose one kind of Islamic law on the society as a whole, various communities might govern matters of personal status internally. Could one, then, declare himself to be a member of the secular community, for example?

Equally intriguing is that the constitution not only condemns terrorism within Iraq but also promises the country will not be a base for terrorist activities against others, another constitutional first with important regional significance.

Obviously, any such constitution's significance will depend on how--and how much--its provisions are implemented. Still, the framework is not so bad. That doesn't mean the constitution will work but that would be true no matter how it is worded.

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Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.

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