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The Work of Patriots

The Work of Patriots


By Fouad Ajami


BAGHDAD--There can be no denying that the drafting of an Iraqi constitution was designed to be one of the signal moments in Iraq's political transition. It had been hoped that this would provide one of those defining images of the remaking of Iraq, on par with the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in April of 2003, his capture eight months later, the transfer of sovereignty in the summer of 2004, and those exhilarating elections last January. We were not to get this kind of satisfaction. After political delays over Sunni participation, the drafters were left with a tight deadline of just 10 weeks to complete their task. Then they ran up against the fractured political realities of Iraq.

For all the impatience with this process, we should not underestimate all the good constitutional work that has unfolded in Iraq. We should be done with the boogeyman image that these makers of Iraq's constitution will hatch a theocratic republic. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing particularly startling about asserting that Islam is "a main source of legislation." Nor ought we give in to panic because an article in the constitution decrees that "no law that contradicts Islamic principles should be issued." Iraq is not Sweden or France. Iraqis are fated to have in their constitution a measure of deference to the Islamic faith. They will live secular lives but pay respect to the Islamic container of their public life. Indeed, the very same article that acknowledges Islam's role is followed by a stark declaration: "No law that constricts democratic principles shall be issued."

"The sun." We must acknowledge that the talk of theocracy imported to Iraq, through the odd instrument of an American war, is a coded attack on the political aspirations of the Shiite majority of Iraq. We are forever looking for Iran in Iraq's life, expecting some pale version of Iran to be imposed in Iraq. This is not in the cards. Even the Shiite jurists of Najaf do not seek a religious state. "We are Arabs. We don't want Iran to rule us," I was told, on the grounds of Shiism's holiest site, the Imam Ali shrine, by its influential overseer, Sayyid Muhammad al-Ghurayfi. "Najaf is the sun. The other centers of Shiism revolve around it."

This decent regard for keeping religion at bay in the political world animates the thought and worldview of the chairman of the constitutional drafting committee, Sheik Humam Hamoudi. A worldly, sophisticated man born in 1952 into an elite culture of privilege that the tyranny of Saddam Hussein all but devastated, Hamoudi was aware of being "a turbaned man" at the helm of a principally secular undertaking. He had donned the turban, he says, in 1984, while in exile in Iran. But he was formed by an Iraqi home steeped in commerce and dealings with the foreign world. His grandfather had been chairman of the chamber of commerce in Baghdad, and there had been many western wives in the extended family. He had grown up in a part of Baghdad, East Karrada, which had, he recalls, more churches than mosques. There had been a healthy regard for Islam in his home but no excessive zeal. His brother, a physician, had made his way to Columbus, Ohio; his sister, also a physician, now lives in Indiana. Hamoudi has no patience with those who would impose their religious convictions on others. By all accounts a skilled and forgiving political player, he gave me an enduring image of his innate pragmatism. "As a boy, I loved the Tigris and the Euphrates, two separate rivers, coming together at Shatt al-Arab to form a single source of life." I can't see this man, or others like him, bringing a reign of religious terrorism to Iraq.

The political and religious terrorism stalking Iraq and making its life sheer hell is altogether different. It came days ago in the form of a message from one of the terrorist brigades, warning of death and damnation to any Sunni Arabs who partake in politics or who register to vote in the October 15 referendum on the constitutional draft. The message declared political participation a form of heresy, an apostasy that amounts to breaking with Islam, a surrender to "the crusaders" and their collaborators--the "Shiite heretics" and the Kurds who "seceded" from Islam. It might have been messy, this business of writing a constitution. But set against the background of this kind of darkness, the effort must be seen as a noble calling for a people too long caught up in a historical nightmare

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