The campaign to make Iraqi Kurdistan's new Constitution one based on secular ideals rather than on Islamic law is causing tensions in the semi-autonomous northern region.
Female activists who signed a petition started by civil society activists and others, have been attacked on social media sites like Facebook, with their harassers accusing them of homosexuality or supporting homosexuality.
As Choman Hardi, an author and assistant professor at the American University in Sulaymaniyah, puts it: “I only want to tell the Muslims who are opposing secularism that Muslims in Europe and in the US are living like genuine citizens in a Christian-majority society even though they are a religious or ethnic minority. Under a secular system, they can wear their veils and live their lives in peace too,” she argues.
The campaign for a Constitution rooted in the secular calls mainly for an evaluation of Article 6 of the current draft of the Constitution. The current draft of Article 6 says that Sharia law is the main source of law in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Hardi explains the problems that the campaigners have with Article 6: “The Article focuses on the fundamentals of Islam but it should be deleted because there is no consensus around it,” Hardi says.
There is also a basic contradiction in terms because on one hand the Constitution emphasises Sharia law and on the other it stresses human rights. The rights of women and children and personal status laws will be bound by religious rules, Hardi points out. The Constitution also contains a paragraph that bans any law that contradicts Article 6 and Sharia law.
Hardi believes the Constitution should protect individual rights, regardless of that individual's religion.
The other side of the argument is espoused by Shukriya Ismail, an MP from the Kurdistan Islamic Movement. “Ninety-five percent of the population of this [Iraqi Kurdish] region are Muslims,” Ismail says. While Ismail says her party understands the importance of respecting all other religions, they also believe that a secular Constitution signifies that there is no religion in the region and shouldn't be applied to a Muslim-majority population.
“This campaign is against religion and it is against the basics of the Iraqi Kurdish region,” she argues. “The organizers of the campaign represent 1 percent of the Kurdish people and they shouldn't impose their will on the rest of the people here.”
Most of the differing opinions have been presented to the Constitution Drafting Committee, a committee made up of 21 members tasked with putting together the draft of the new Constitution and meeting with all stakeholders.
“As a Constitution Drafting Committee, we welcome all opinions and our doors are open to all segments of society to give feedback, information and ideas,” agrees Farsat Sofi, a member of the Drafting Committee and an MP belonging to one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.
“There is a continuous debate and dialogue among the Committee members on this issue. Some want a secular system and some – led by the clerics – demand a system that is religion-first,” Sofi continues. “But the committee respects every opinion and is trying to reach a consensus.”
“We have been able to finalize the 24 basic principles and the preamble and we are now discussing Article 6,” says Curran Azad, another member of the Drafting Committee and an MP from the other of Iraqi Kurdistan's two biggest parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. “We've received a lot of feedback from civil society organisations and human rights organisations as well as women's rights groups. We are focusing on the family and the sanctity of the family as well as the rights of children and women.”
When it comes to basic rights and freedoms and citizenship, there are no disagreements, Azad says: “The only problem is the religious one.”
“We discussed the issue of religion for 18 hours and the only problem was that members of one of the Islamic parties kept saying that the Constitution shouldn't contradict principles of Sharia,” says Kwestan Ali Abdullah, another member of the Constitution Drafting Committee. “The main problem is that fundamentals of Islamic law are open to interpretation and nobody knows exactly what is meant because there is no consensus between the different doctrines. Not only that, there is no consensus between the different Islamic parties in Kurdistan either.”
The Drafting Committee had added an important article to the Constitution already that served women's interests and involved positive discrimination for women in Iraqi Kurdistan.
There is general acknowledgement that the local political parties with an Islamic bent have put pressure on the Drafting Committee; some have suggested they would organise protests if they do not get their way.
“But the Islamic parties shouldn’t be able to impose conditions on the Committee or to impose Islamic fundamentals on a society where there are not just Muslims, but also Christians, Yazadis and Kazaks as well as other religions,” says local women's rights campaigner, Bahar Munther.
Meanwhile the Islamic MPs obviously have a different opinion. “We support the rights of all citizens and the rights of all women and we want them enshrined in the Constitution,” says Abubakir Haldani, an MP for the Kurdistan Islamic Union. “We believe that if we ensure gender equality in the Constitution that there will be no contradiction between Islamic principles, human rights and equality.”