Diverse laws - even when Islam rules

Iraq's new National Assembly set off Wednesday on its historic task of writing the country's permanent constitution. At the heart of the debate are the role of religion and the extent of guarantees for women's rights and other internationally recognized freedoms.

The Muslim world provides surprisingly diverse answers to these questions - and many positive examples, says the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. In a study of the constitutions of the 44 predominantly Muslim nations, released last week, it found that:

• Half of those nations either proclaim the state to be secular or make no statement regarding Islam as the state religion.

• Some countries in which Islam is the declared state religion provide constitutional guarantees of the right to freedom of religion comparable to international legal standards.

• Some countries where Islam is the state religion also have provisions protecting freedom of expression, association, and assembly, or rights of equality and nondiscrimination related to religion and gender.

• Several constitutions incorporate or reference international human rights instruments (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Afghanistan and Bangladesh illustrate the diversity among states that rely on Islamic law. Afghanistan's new constitution says "no law can be contrary to Islam." The Bangladesh constitution places "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" as the basis of all actions, but also says this principle "shall not be judicially enforceable."

While some constitutions protect individuals against coercion related to religion, the challenge often comes in practice. Pakistan, for instance, has such provisions, but its blasphemy laws can conflict with freedom of expression.

Iraq's interim constitution provides gender equality. With 31 percent of the seats in the new assembly, Iraqi women hope to ensure that the permanent constitution also enshrines equality.

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