By Adhid Miri
Iraq's legislature is considering a bill that would change the composition of the country's Supreme Court. The change would include the addition of Islamic scholars, which has stirred controversy over how much influence Islam should have in government.
As early as September 2019, Iraq’s parliament will vote on a bill affecting federal Courts which for the first time, provides for mullahs, Muslims learned in Islamic theology, to sit as judges on the nation’s highest court. Furthermore, it confers these Islamic judges with enhanced powers to veto laws they deem to contradict with Islam – laws passed by the duly elected parliament. These jurists would likely be drawn from Iraq’s dominant Twelvers branch of Shia Islam, which is also Iran’s ruling sect.
The new law will poise Iraq to follow Iran’s legal structure and curb religious freedom. It would executively align Iraqi judiciary with Iran’s theocratic governance which would undermine Iraq’s fragile democracy and jeopardize religious freedom and other basic rights.
Under the proposed law, the court would be composed of a president, his deputy and 11 members, of which four of the 11 members are Islamic scholars with veto power. All the members would be selected and approved by "the three presidencies" — the president of the republic, the prime minister, and the parliament speaker.
The parliamentary blocs reject the proposal; they believe parliament should exclusively hold the power to approve these members. The Kurdish blocs want to be represented on the court by two Kurdish members as the court’s power extends over the entire country of Iraq, which includes the autonomous Kurdistan region.
Amid numerous disputes, some political parties in the country expect a delay of the bill's third, and final reading. This proposed law is a delicate matter as it confers to the Court several important powers which includes interpreting constitutional texts, supervising the implementation of laws, and settling disputes between local governments and the federal government.
Fear of Islamization of the judiciary in the country stems from Article 92 of the constitution which includes scholars in Islamic jurisprudence as members of the Federal Supreme Court. The dispute now is whether their role should be solely advisory or if they should be designated to vote on all decisions.
In a multireligious country such as Iraq, appointing clerics to the highest judicial authority will lead to disputes over who should appoint them and what body they represent. Minorities fear the Court could turn into a Supreme religious authority as clerics could block any decision the Court might make otherwise.
This opening for mullahs on the highest court as judges with veto powers risks putting “Iraq’s judiciary in the company of those in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan,” according to the American adviser for Iraq’s constitution Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor.
Iraqi civic society activists, expressed fears this bill would turn the court into a “Supreme religious authority.” Iraq’s Christians are also alarmed, as their leaders have lodged complaints with the U.S. and Iraqi governments. The proposed law would establish a replica of the Islamic regime in Iran and could substantially alter the court’s function thereby promoting an increasingly theocratic state wherein religious rules take precedence over the existing, mostly secular, legal system.
The proposed law cements sectarian divisions and grants sectarian voices more power than elected legal authorities. The political parties in power control the way members of the court are appointed and determine their jurisdiction. Each party wants to maintain as much influence as possible at the Supreme Court.
Iraq’s Christians expressed fears that giving Islamic clerics voting and veto rights in the Federal Supreme Court could lead the country towards becoming a theocracy. Christian and minorities fear the attempt to add Islamic Clerics to Iraq’s Supreme Court means Sharia Law would always take precedence and establish a ‘Religious State’ in Iraq. A theocracy means new laws may be established based on Islam affecting freedoms such as clothing choice, alcohol use, and social life.
Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako, head of the Chaldean Church, publicly opposed the law. In a letter to the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, he wrote that the proposal could threaten the future of Christians in the country, “after all the suffering we have endured from terrorism, displacement, pillaging, murder, and property theft”.
Discrimination and an uncertain future are the main reasons behind the migration of Iraqi Christians and minorities. In the 1970s, Christians composed five percent of Iraq’s population and after the fall of the previous regime in 2003, Christians became violently targeted by terrorists which reduced their population to less than two percent. Therefore, governmental priority should be to preserve and protect Christian and minority rights and identities.
The U.S. continues to invest heavily in shoring up Iraq’s sovereign democracy. The new American ambassador, Matthew Tueller, met with Iraq’s justice minister to pledge support for human rights protection and has visited leaders in Nineveh, Iraq to report the U.S. commitment to rebuild communities and protect minority groups attacked by ISIS. These measures won’t succeed if Iraq follows Iran’s governing system of Islamic jurist rule.
As Iraqi expats, Chaldean Americans firmly believe that the Iraqi parliament and its citizens need to unify, synthesize, and discuss a new amendment that guarantees equal religious freedom to all citizens. The article shall state “Islam is one of the guiding principles of legislations” and not the current vague provision that states “no law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam” - Iraq’s 2005 Constitution (article 2).
Iraqi Christians and other sects who suffered in silence for many decades must voice their opinions and lead the stride for new solutions. If Christians remain silent and fail to take serious steps to change the situation, then the remaining Christians and minorities will immigrate which sacrifices the beautiful national cultural diversity of Iraq.
Chaldeans must impact the process and stand united with other ethnic minorities against this archaic injustice. This law is a stab in the heart of the civil state and a dagger in the back of religious minorities.
Changes to Iraq’s Supreme Court could detrimentally affect Christians. It must be made clear that Christians and other ethnic minorities matter and are equal under the law. If the law is approved, more Christians will leave Iraq and will become just a memory, just like the Iraqi Jews. Any departure from this civil human rights doctrine sadly signals the tragic demise of Christianity in Iraq.