Referendum in Iraq Part 1

By | November 1, 2021

On October 15, there will be a referendum in Iraq on a new constitution. Many see this as a milestone in the establishment of a new democracy after Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime was overthrown in 2003.

  • What particular challenges have the Iraqis faced in working on a new constitution?
  • Which points in the draft constitution are controversial?
  • Is it likely that the constitution will be adopted, and what will happen if it does not get enough support?

2: Ethnic-religious complexity

Creating a new constitution is a huge challenge for any country, but this process is particularly demanding in Iraq. One of the reasons for this is the “ethnic-religious complexity” in the country: The population consists of several large subgroups with their own identities based on language or religion. The largest are:

  • Shia Muslim Arabs (approx. 55-60%)
  • Sunni Muslim Arabs (approx. 15–20%)
  • Kurds (approx. 20–25%, mainly Sunni Muslims)

According to ask4beauty, there are fluid transitions in this categorization. Idealists often dwell on examples of mixed marriages and people who thus cross the ethnic-religious boundaries. However, there is little doubt that the vast majority of Iraqis know very well which of the three categories they are particularly associated with. In principle, such an ethnic quilt does not have to be a political problem.

Throughout Iraq’s history, the importance of ethnic-religious labels has varied greatly. Moreover, in a similar situation, many other countries in the world have mastered their ethnic diversity without explicitly making adjustments to the constitution. In the decades before 1980, ethnicity played a much more modest role in Iraqi society.

It was primarily towards the end of the Iran – Iraq war (1980–1988) and after the Gulf War in 1991 that ethnic conflicts came to the fore. The regime (dominated by Sunni Muslim Arabs) then brutally cracked down on Kurdish and Shia Muslim groups leading the uprising against Saddam Hussein. In the decade that followed, many politicians from these groups ended up in exile, often resulting in the strengthening of ethnic-religious special interests at the expense of values ​​that bind Iraqis together across languages ​​and religions.

For many Iraqis still living in ethnically mixed cities such as Baghdad and Kirkuk, however, such an intense focus on subgroups seemed foreign and artificial. They still thought of themselves primarily as Iraqis. It was never the case that all Arab Sunni Muslims benefited from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and many Kurds and Shiites also made careers within the system.

3: Ethnic triad

Only after the war in 2003 has it become meaningful to talk about a real ethnic division. The reasons for this ethnicizationof Iraqi politics are more. The United States has pursued a shaky policy in this area. The US occupation authorities have occasionally used group antagonisms to gain tactical advantages in the war in Iraq. The organized resistance movement against the Americans (especially strong in Sunni Muslim areas) has also played on religious tensions to incite armed resistance. It has focused on Shia Muslims as its main enemy. And there have been reactions from Shia Muslims: Although top religious leaders have protested that Iraqi Muslims should be “split” into sects (Shia-Sunni Muslims), more opportunistic Shiite politicians have tried to exploit the conflict. They have identified “Sunni Muslim Arabs” as the main threat to a stable and democratic Iraq.

All this has resulted in the individual groups today being much more aware of their own group identities (and collective political demands) than they were in 2003. Because while the Kurds have demanded self-government for decades, it is completely new that many Shia Muslims also insist in a decentralized state that they believe can better defend their own special interests.

4: The place of religion in the state system

Religion has been another challenge for Iraqi constitutional writers. Many western countries have had upsetting debates about the role of religion in the state school system. In many Muslim countries, it is religion as a source of legislation that has been debated. Several states in the Middle East are governed by regimes that want to have secular (non-religious) legislation. In recent decades, these have come under pressure from Islamist groups who believe the introduction of Islamic law is the best solution to achieve prosperity and social harmony.

Historically, Iraq has been one of the countries in the Middle East where religion has played a modest role in legislation. Unlike several neighboring countries, Iraq has long had a non-religious family law (in matters of inheritance, divorce, etc.). It is true that in the 1990s the regime experimented with “Islamic” practice in criminal law, but this was never a systematic attempt to introduce Islamic law. On the other hand, Islamist groups have gained a strong foothold in the wake of the Iraq war in 2003 .

For several of these groups, it is a key requirement that the new constitution should make Islamic law (sharia) a mainstay. Opponents of Islamization are concerned with freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equality – and claim that Islamic principles here are unclear or represent a step back from the current situation.

Referendum in Iraq 1