According to article 2-section A of the Iraqi constitution, “no law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.” This single sentence is enough to cause many divisions among Iraqis, as to what they should consider pro or anti-Islam. It’s also an excuse used by Iraqi politicians as a justification for not passing laws that would protect marginalized people. Among these is the law currently being debated, which if enacted, would criminalize domestic abuse and save the lives of many women and children.
If we want to understand how religion is affecting the passage of certain laws, we have to understand the structure of the Iraqi parliament. Consisting of 329 seats, the council of representatives is the legislative part of the government. Therefore, any laws that are introduced must be approved by the majority of representatives in order to be applied on the ground. And herein lies the problem: the majority of representatives come from religious parties, and they function as puppets of those parties, rather than as representatives and voice of the people.
During the 2018 parliamentary elections, the “Saairun” alliance won the majority of seats at 54, though the alliance consisted of a couple of parties. It was Muqtada Al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Shiite movement, who had popularized “Saairun” among Iraqi voters. This eventually made Muqtada a “politician,” besides being a religious figure and a militia leader.
The alliance that came in second in the elections was “al-Fatah,” led by Hadi Al-Amiri, leader of the “al-Badr organization.” This is a Shiite Islamic militia group that fought against ISIS and later became involved in politics. Al-Amiri is considered a terrorist by the United States, while holding crucial positions in the Iraqi government. All of that shows how religious parties and militia leaders occupy important decision-making roles within the Iraqi government, and are very popular among many Iraqis.
This raises a very important question: why do a large number of Iraqis continue to vote for people who really should not be in politics? In other words, after all, haven’t they figured out how useless these individuals are in real life? To understand that we need to put the problem into a religious/economic context. For instance, many of these parties tend to distribute small amounts of money and food to a large number of the poor in less fortunate communities in Baghdad and other cities, promising them even more food and money if they vote for them. Eventually, they gain the sympathy of the people as well as their votes. Those people suffered unique discrimination and lacked access to proper education and healthcare for years. For that, there is no one to blame but the corrupt government institutions that don’t care about the wellbeing of citizens.
The other thing to consider in explaining the vote of Iraqis is religion. Besides distributing food and money, parties promote Islamic sectarian propaganda by holding local large-scale meetings in many Iraqi provinces to incite hatred and fear of the other side. In other words, Sunnis then vote for Sunni candidates and Shias vote for Shiite candidates, regardless of how fit they are for the job. There is also concern for the integrity of the Iraqi elections, as many believe that the majority of Iraqis don’t actually vote for these politicians, but rather that their votes are manipulated under the influence of Iran and its militias in Iraq.
Iran-backed militias are one of biggest obstacles to the prosperity and stability of Iraq. They assassinate activists and anyone who criticizes them publicly, and their leaders also hold important positions in the government and control most of the media outlets in Iraq. Those outlets stream their extremist pro-Iran religious propaganda that can brainwash the minds of some people, especially the poor and underprivileged, when joining the militia can save their family from starvation and make them feel they are actually serving God’s will on earth. And that’s exactly how these religious terrorist organizations in Iraq manage to recruit a lot of young Iraqi folks — by taking advantage of the state of hopelessness they are in. This also means that issues like gender equality, homophobic crimes against the LGBTQ+ community, femicide and freedom of speech are not expected to be even considered in the parliament, since most seats are occupied by world-renowned terrorists and religious-motivated parties.
On the other side of the world, a similar issue is arising in the United States. There is now a question whether the American government is completely secular, or instead reflects an alarming adaptation of Christian nationalism in its policies.
Currently, the Trump administration has shown many times a complete disregard for scientific data and evidence, which has worsened the on-going COVID-19 pandemic in the US and put it in the lead globally with the highest number of deaths. He has stated many times that the virus is a hoax and that wearing a mask should be voluntary — all while over 200,000 Americans died because of the virus. Many pro-trump Christian conservatives take him seriously, and you see them attending rallies in the middle of the pandemic, without wearing a mask. Many have stated in interviews that this is all a conspiracy, and that even if it were not, it is the will of God if they get infected, and it has nothing to do with wearing a mask or taking health measurements. Ironically, Trump tested positive with COVID-19 right after the first 2020 presidential debate. So, with that in mind, will Trump supporters finally believe that the pandemic is real, and that anyone can get infected?!
At the 2020 Republican National Convention, Trump invited Sister Dede to give a speech, showing that he is certainly not intending to take a secular approach to government. His decision was likely a bid to gain the votes of the many pro-life anti-women masses in the US. During her four minute speech, Sister Dede made many statements that were problematic. She dared to compare marginalized people seeking refuge in the US to what she called the largest marginalized group in America — that is, the unborn. The obvious reality is that black Americans are the largest marginalized group in America, but Sister Dede went for aborted fetuses, attacking women for what they want to do with their bodies. Toward the ending of her speech, she called Trump “the most pro-life president ever,” and that all Christians should vote for him. This was the same president who had, during the 2020 first presidential debate, refused to condemn white supremacists, and who blamed “left-wing radicals” for all the violence taking place in many American cities. Trump has used, and is still using, hatred, racism, misogyny, sexism, transphobia, and radical so-called Christian principles in order to gain support from Americans who share those same ideologies.
Which brings us to “freedom of speech” in America and how tricky that concept can be. Neo-nazi white-supremacists group —most famously the Ku Klux Klan— are still not considered terrorist groups. Despite the KKK’s long history of hatred and violence towards Black Americans, Jews, and civil rights activists, their activities still aren’t suspended, claimed by many as practicing the “First Amendment.” With Trump having decided to label Antifa a terrorist organization, one might ask why didn’t the Trump administration consider Antifa’s activities as “freedom of speech”? The same freedom that the Klan is practising? Is Trump reflecting a certain political stance as he sides with white supremacists? The truth is that Antifa isn’t exactly an organization like the KKK, and their activism does not go beyond property damage. In other words, Antifa is nowhere as terrorizing and dangerous as the KKK. The “ First Amendment” mentions ”the right of the people to peaceably assemble, which completely discredits the legitimacy of the KKK. Their assemblies are not peaceful, and since their establishment in 1865 they have adopted a hateful, racist narrative that has caused the loss of many American lives.
That the issue of religion has entered into both Iraqi and American politics cannot be seen as limited to just one cause. But with regard to the white supremacists in the US, who don’t mind carrying out terrorist attacks on those who are not white and Christian, to the many militias in Iraq who are also fine with kidnapping or assassinating anyone who speaks out against them or does not share their same version of Islam, there is one big similarity: their actions are not being limited or criminalized, nor are they being denounced publicly and by name, by either the Iraqi or the American governments.
Losing all of those votes may well be the main reason why both governments seem afraid to take any serious steps to eradicate the influence and propaganda of these individuals. As we witnessed earlier, Trump refused to call out white nationalists when questioned. And the Iraqi PM, Al Kadhimi, promised his people that he would arrest those who had assassinated so many civil rights activists, but has done nothing about it till now. The situation can be seen as quite alarming.
In both of these cases, unless each government comes out and names these groups, and calls them what they truly are — terrorists — it must be said that the state of freedom of speech and human rights in these countries is still merely conceptual.