August 3, 2006
Good for the Gander? The Iraqi Constitution and American Democracy
-- Brett T. Wilmot
Whether you are liberal or conservative, believe that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was justified or not, most of us probably can agree that the establishment of a democratic government in Baghdad would represent a significant improvement over the previous regime. Whether this objective, or even its realization, can serve to justify a military incursion the original reasons for which no longer hold is a topic for another day. But those of us interested in the role of religion in democratic politics might be troubled by the kind of democracy that we are currently promoting in Iraq -- in part because of its apparent failure to spark critical interest in the treatment of religion under the new constitution.
One concern has to do with what our affirmation -- or lack of criticism -- of the Iraqi Constitution with respect to its inclusion of clauses that can only be read as establishing Islam as the state religion says about America as a democratic polity. My objective here is not to criticize the achievements of those diplomats and politicians who have struggled mightily to achieve what conditions in Iraq will allow in terms of establishing a stable political order. Rather, I am interested in our apparent complacency with regard to the establishment of religion in the Iraqi Constitution and what this may say about our evolving self-understanding as a democratic people.
To be sure, religious disestablishment remains a contested principle in terms of its relationship to constitutional democracy as such. Some insist that religion's place within democracy is something that each community should determine, based on its particular cultural and historical circumstances. The support given to the Iraqi Constitution by our leaders suggests an inclination toward this historicist position, and I think this is revealing about ongoing debates within our own country with respect to the proper role of religion in American politics.
Why does this matter? Well, to my mind, it suggests that our current leadership sees our constitutional treatment of religion under the First Amendment as something accidental, even nonessential, to our constitutional democracy, and possibly as something subject to revision in our own political context.
Regardless of the historical particulars of how Western democracy and religious disestablishment came to coincide, others have defended it as the natural unfolding of the internal logic of democratic principles. This, in turn, has spawned debates about whether this link between secularization and democracy is best understood historically and contingently, or as a necessary expression of the logic of constitutional democracy. I cannot help but see in the paucity of critical debate about the new Iraqi Constitution and its treatment of religion an implicit endorsement of the historicist position.
This endorsement is troubling, not because the historicist position is obviously wrong, but rather because embracing it as a guide for nation building may have implications here at home at a time when our understanding of the proper role of religion in American politics is in flux, at least if we take seriously much recent scholarship on this topic. To my knowledge, there simply has not been a great deal of attention paid to the significance of religious establishment under the new Iraqi Constitution or what it means for our own political community to endorse and defend, at the cost of much blood and treasure, such a regime as a legitimate embodiment of our own democratic ideals.
Granted, the ongoing events in Iraq are disturbing enough, and it might seem like quibbling to worry about such details when Americans and Iraqis are dying every day while trying to achieve even a modicum of political stability. Still, I find it odd that in our efforts to export a model of constitutional democracy that reflects our own ideals we have been so uncritical of a final product that expressly rejects what many of us view as constitutional bedrock: religious disestablishment.
My point here is that our support for an Iraqi Constitution that contains the explicit establishment of Islam ought to raise more questions here on the home front, and the absence of such questions in the public debates about the kind of nation we are helping to build makes me wonder how deep the historicist position has penetrated our collective self-understanding as a democratic people. I would suggest, too, that our apparent complacency with the type of democracy we are promoting for Iraq is disconcerting principally because it does not seem to be cause for concern at a time when the role of religion in American politics under our constitution is being challenged in theory and practice.
Now might be a good time to reflect more critically on our democratic principles here at home, even as we seek to export this precious commodity abroad.
The text of the Iraqi Constitution may be found here: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/document/2005/1015text.htm.
Brett T. Wilmot is Associate Director of the Ethics Program at Villanova University.