On April 1st, the judiciary of Garraf District in the Southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar confirmed that arrest warrants had been issued for four men on charges relating to atheism. Dhidan al-Ekili, the chief justice of Garraf district, said that the charges specifically related to the men “holding seminars during social gatherings to promote the idea of the nonexistence of God and to spread and popularize atheism.”
Ekili stated that the warrants, as part of a wider anti-atheism movement in the province, were coherent with the Iraqi penal code. The Iraqi constitution entrenches the right to “freedom of belief and intellectual views,” meaning that there is no specific law against atheism. However, the penal code contains provisions punishing the desecration of religion. Although it remains unclear what may constitute such an offence, it seems that in practice the provision has been utilized to give rise to a broader legal crackdown on those publicly proposing atheism.
Recently a representative of Iraq’s highest Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a speech expounding that atheism in Iraq resulted directly from social, economic and political failings in the country. Additionally, various Iraqi newspapers have made similar claims or tied the rise in public declarations of atheism to the failure of Islamist parties to provide in line with their core principles. The arrest warrants may be reflective of the prevalence of such ideas, constituting an attempt to reaffirm the legitimacy of government and judicial organs in light of long term instability.
Safaa Khalaf, an Iraqi reporter, elaborated upon this concept in an interview with Al Monitor News. “Atheism surfaced as a social reaction to the overreaching hands of political Islam and its failure to govern services and state, not to mention the new patterns of intellect and lifestyles that were the result of the openness of modern communication, especially for new generations that live under huge pressure [from] frustration.” He believes that the influence of Islamist parties upon the judiciary is behind the crack down upon atheism.
Khalaf’s statement also reflects a 2012 survey conducted by Gallop showing that 88 percent of the country’s population was religious. Atheism is not often portrayed to be a naturally occurring phenomenon, but rather an act of rebellion stemming from social and economic grievances. Protections against the desecration of religion are not uncommon in conservative countries and often present themselves as problematic.
If Iraq is to truly entrench the constitutional right to freedom of belief and intellectual views, a clear threshold needs to be established in order to prevent the utilization of the penal code for political purposes. Although little information is available about the exact nature of the charges, it appears that the men attracted the attention of the judiciary as they were believed to be encouraging apostacy. The provision under which the men are charged appears to afford a high degree of discretion, in certain circumstances carrying the capacity to erode the previously constitutionally entrenched right to freedom of belief.
Balancing the right to freedom of belief and the protection of religion in Iraq presents a difficult balancing act, pitting the judiciary and Islamist parties against journalists and socially progressive factions. Rather than making a determination as to the justice that the charges may afford or deny, this article simply propones that the law should be made clear in order to facilitate a strong rule of law tradition and due process must be ensured.