Religious Freedom in Iraq: 2006 Versus 2002

My earlier post on the resignation of Miss Iraq because of threats from religious extremists has provoked some interesting responses, especially my comment that “Iraq is still a conservative Muslim society where women are expected to cover their hair lest they create too much lust in the hearts of the pious Muslim men.”

Jim Henley notes in the comments that the pageant ran successfully before we toppled Sadddam Hussein. “Alex DeLarge” agrees and charges,

How typical of Right Blogostan to fatuously sweep the fallout from Bush’s policies under the rug. Iraq is not “still a conservative Muslim society,” we made it that way by deposing a secular tyrant without a dook of a thought of what comes next. We created a vacuum into which Shiite religious parties flowed, which correspondingly strengthened the hand of Sunni religious leaders amongst their fearful consitutuents.

Or, as TBogg puts it (apparently responding to John Hinderacker although there is no link and I can not find a post from him on the subject) “I hate to point out the obvious to John, but this never would have happened under Saddam.”

I don’t know much about the pre-invasion history of Iraqi beauty pageants. It would not surprise me, however, if Iraq under the lauded “secular government” of Saddam was more tolerant of women parading around in bathing suits.

I hasten to add, however, that all was not sweetness and light in the good old days under Uncle Saddam. (I don’t suggest that Henley believes otherwise; the tone of “DeLarge” and TBogg’s pieces suggests that they might.) An October 7, 2002 (i.e., pre-invasion) report by the State Department on religious freedom reminds us:

The Interim Constitution provides for individual freedom of religion, provided that it does not violate “morality and public order;” however, the Government severely limits freedom of religion in practice, represses the Shi’a religious leadership, and seeks to exploit religious differences for political purposes. Islam is the official state religion. Other religions are practiced in the country, but the Government exercises repressive measures against any religious groups or organizations that are deemed not to provide full political and social support.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Although Shi’a Arabs are the largest religious group, Sunni Arabs traditionally have dominated economic and political life. Sunni Arabs are at a distinct advantage in all areas of secular life. The Government also severely restricts or bans outright many Shi’a religious practices. The Government for decades has conducted a brutal campaign of killings, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against the religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi’a Muslim population and has sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Yazidi groups. The regime systematically has killed senior Shi’a clerics, desecrated Shi’a mosques and holy sites, interfered with Shi’a religious education, and prevented Shi’a adherents from performing their religious rites.

Shi’a Arabs, the religious majority of the population, long have been disadvantaged economically, politically, and socially. Christians also report various abuses including repression of political rights.


In 2001 the Secretary of State designated Iraq a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for its severe violations of religious freedom. Iraq was similarly designated in 1999 and 2000.


There are no Shari’a (Islamic law) courts as such. Civil courts are empowered to administer Islamic law in cases involving personal status, such as divorce and inheritance.

In the north, an Islamic group called the Jund al-Islam seized control of several villages near Halabja during the period covered by this report, and established an administration governed under Shari’a. The group is alleged to have ties to the al-Qaida network and many from the group had spent time in Afghanistan while it was under the control of the Taliban. The group changed its name to Ansar al-Islam in December 2001. The group continued to control a small section of the northern part of the country along the Iranian border at the end of the period covered by this report. Local authorities claim that the group seeks to expand the area under its control by undermining the local administration, with the ultimate goal of imposing rule under Islamic law over all of the northern part of the country.

The group restricted non-Islamic worship, imposed severe restrictions on public behavior, and administered all civil affairs under an extreme interpretation of Islamic laws.


The following government restrictions on religious rights remained in effect throughout the period covered by this report: restrictions on communal Friday prayer by Shi’a; restrictions on Shi’a mosque libraries loaning books; a ban on the broadcast of Shi’a programs on government-controlled radio or television; a ban on the publication of Shi’a books, including prayer books and guides; a ban on many funeral processions other than those organized by the Government; a ban on other Shi’a funeral observances, such as gatherings for Koran reading; and the prohibition of certain processions and public meetings commemorating Shi’a holy days. The Government requires that speeches by Shi’a imams in mosques be based upon government-provided material that attacks fundamentalist trends.

Shi’a groups report capturing documents from the security services during the 1991 uprising that listed thousands of forbidden Shi’a religious writings. Since 1991 security forces have been encamped in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf, one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites, and at the city’s Shi’a theological schools. The shrine was closed for “repairs” for approximately 2 years after the 1991 uprising. The adjoining al-Khathra mosque, which was closed in 1994, has remained closed since. The closure coincided with the death of Ayatollah Sayed Mohammed Taqi al-Khoei, who was killed in what observers believe was a staged car accident; before his death, Ayatollah al-Khoei led prayers in the al-Khathra mosque.

In June 1999, several Shi’a opposition groups reported that the Government had instituted a program in the predominantly Shi’a districts of Baghdad that uses food ration cards to restrict where individuals may pray. The ration cards, part of the U.N. oil-for-food program, reportedly are checked when the bearer enters a mosque and are printed with a notice of severe penalties for those who attempt to pray at an unauthorized location. Shi’a expatriates who reported this policy believe that it is aimed not only at preventing unauthorized religious gatherings of Shi’a, but at stopping Shi’a adherents from attending Friday prayers in Sunni mosques, a practice that many pious Shi’a have turned to because their own mosques remain closed. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs monitors places of worship, appoints the clergy, approves the building and repair of all places of worship, and approves the publication of all religious literature.

Assyrian religious organizations have claimed that the Government applies apostasy laws in a discriminatory fashion. Assyrians are permitted to convert to Islam, whereas Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity.

The Government consistently politicizes and interferes with religious pilgrimages, both of Iraqi Muslims who wish to make the Hajj to Mecca and Medina and of Iraqi and non-Iraqi Muslim pilgrims who travel to holy sites within the country. For example, in 1998 the U.N. Sanctions Committee offered to disburse vouchers for travel and expenses to pilgrims making the Hajj; however, the Government rejected this offer. In 1999 the Sanctions Committee offered to disburse funds to cover Hajj-related expenses via a neutral third party; the Government again rejected the offer. Following the December 1999 passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1284, the Sanctions Committee again sought to devise a protocol to facilitate the payment for individuals making the journey. The Sanctions Committee proposed to issue $250 in cash and $1,750 in travelers checks to each individual pilgrim to be distributed at the U.N. office in Baghdad in the presence of both U.N. and Iraqi officials. The Government again declined and, consequently, no Iraqi pilgrims were able to take advantage of the available funds or, in 2000, of the permitted flights. The Government also has attempted to use pilgrimages to circumvent sanctions for its own financial benefit. In 2001 the Government continued to insist that U.N.-offered funds for Hajj pilgrims be deposited in the government-controlled central bank and placed under the control of government officials for disbursement rather than given to the pilgrims.

At very worst, we have traded in a regime that murdered dissenters by the tens of thousands and repressed the majority under color of authority for one that is powerless to prevent religious nuts from issuing threats. At very least, people are not being persecuted for religious belief by the government. Traded against the harrassment of a beauty contest winner by private individuals, that strikes me as acceptable.

It should be noted, too, that the population did not suddenly become reactionary and hyper-religious. This belief system persisted despite decades of rule by a regime that favored a minority sect and punished the majority. Just as Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe failed to eradicate religion despite harshly imposed state secularism, the Baathist regime failed to change the fundamental character of Iraqi society. Indeed, it is quite likely that in all those cases government policy actually strengthened the religious fervor of the masses.

The transition to democracy from authoritarian rule is often violent and chaotic, as old scores are settled and people are free to express long repressed resentments. See the entire post-1960 history of sub-Saharan Africa or post-Cold War Eastern Europe. That may well be an argument against nation-building, let alone the neo-conservative vision of spreading democracy through any means necessary. It does not, however, follow that leaving dictators in place is desirable.

Unless you’re really a big fan of beauty pageants, I guess.

Update: “DeLarge” responds as an update to his original post that,

I do not believe all was sweetness and light under Saddam. Further, he was and is a vicious thug who garners no sympathy or support from this corner. [emphasis original]

But that doesn’t alter the complete disingenuousness of the Beltway pundits trying to pretend that his secular dictatorship is responsible for the religious extremism the Bush administration’s incompetent exercise in nation building has incubated and propelled into power.

As my post makes clear, Saddam’s dictatorship was far from “secular” in application. Further, I don’t suggest that Saddam was “responsible” for the current religious extremism; I noted in the original that it, “persisted despite decades of rule by a regime that favored a minority sect and punished the majority.”

The current government was elected by the Iraqi people in a series of open contests that, by all impartial accounts, were fairly conducted. Popular sovereignty in a religious society often brings religiously minded people to power. Still, it is a government that on the main much more tolerant than Saddam’s. Even the case in point, the death threats purportedly made to a beauty pageant winner, were made by private individuals, not the government. That may not matter much to the threatened individual but it is a world of difference from a systems perspective.

The inability of the government to ensure her safety–or at least her sense of safety–is problematic, to be sure, but hardly the sole province of Iraq.

Editor’s note: Three posts in one day on beauty pageants is almost certainly an OTB record.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. cirby says:

    …and while it was certainly possible to hold beauty contests in Iraq before the fall of Hussein, there was always the problem of wondering if Uday Hussein was going to decide to take the winner home for his own entertainment (with the resulting rape and mutilation that was usually involved).