Iraqi constitution shows progress

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The Article

The concept of compromise, a foreign idea in much of the Arab Middle East, was essential, Salim Mansur says

With the final draft of Iraq’s new constitution now completed under the extremely adverse conditions of a bloody insurgency, it will be submitted to Iraqis for approval in an open referendum scheduled for Oct. 15.

Last week’s refusal by Sunni Arab members of the constitutional committee to accept the majority consensus reflects the reluctance of their constituents to yet acknowledge the profoundly altered reality of Iraq.

Only in January, some seven months ago, Iraqis voted for the first time in an open multi-party election for an interim parliament with responsibility to write the constitution, or basic laws, for their country.

None of this could have been imagined without the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and the liberation of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

Nor would Iraqis have come this far in rebuilding their country without the sacrifices of American and British soldiers, and the determination of their respective leaders, President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Opponents of Iraq’s democracy might make much of difficulties posed in reaching consensus on the draft constitution. But any constitution worth its salt is a result of difficult compromises over difficult subjects and sometimes seemingly unbending principles.

The key concept here is “compromise,” an idea mostly foreign in the cultures of the region, and yet essential for the functioning of democracy.

Moreover, no constitution—not even America’s—is a perfect and closed document. It provides at best the architectural design for a country where its citizens will be free, protected and justly treated, and sets the rules by which they will govern themselves.

A free country evolves. The United States evolved from a partly slave society to a fully emancipated republic, and Canada evolved from a society where women could not vote to one where women may hold the highest constitutionally designated office—that of governor general.

Federalism and religion

The difficult issues in Iraq’s constitution-making have been federalism and the scope of religion in politics. These are universally difficult issues and, hence, it is remarkable how well, in such short time, the Iraqi constitution-makers negotiated difficult compromises.

Iraq is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society where the Arab population is divided into majority Shiites (over 60% of Iraqis) and minority Sunnis (some 20%). Another 20% of the population are Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslim by faith and predominantly secular in culture. There is also a dwindling number of Assyrian Christians, Turks and those belonging to non-denominational faith groups.

When it was first created, Iraq was a centralized state dominated by the minority Sunni Arabs. This domination mutated into Saddam’s tyranny, with genocidal consequences for Kurds and immense suffering for Shiites.

Since 1991—following the first Gulf War—Kurds found freedom in their northern provinces protected by American-British enforced no-fly zones. The Kurds insisted on maintaining their autonomy within a federal Iraq by denying themselves their own claim to statehood. Similarly, the Shiites insisted on provincial autonomy as a guarantee against any future centralized authority—given the memory of Saddam’s tyranny—tending towards authoritarianism.

Debating federalism meant dealing with the more substantive issue of sharing oil revenue for the benefit of all Iraqis, since oil resources are located in the Shiite areas of southern Iraq and in the Kurdish north.

The compromise over faith and politics is an agreement that no laws contrary to Islam will be legislated. But understanding and practice of Islam undeniably will change over time as a result of democracy with increasing participation of women and minorities—and this in effect is what Muslim reformation is ultimately all about.

Iraq’s success in democratic state-building rests on Iraqis themselves, but its consequences will be far-reaching. Iraqis have shown, despite the insurgency’s ferocity, their determination not to fail, for they know best what failure might mean.


Salim Mansur
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