Can tolerant Canada tolerate sharia?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Their burnished domes rise high above the adjacent pizza parlors and drab strip malls, like beacons of sanctity in this largely secular country.

But the peaceful facades of the dozens of mosques in Canada's most populous province belie the public rancor that has been stirred up over the use of sharia, or Islamic law, by Ontario's Muslims.

Muslims here, supported by a 1991 provincial law, have been using sharia to mediate legal disputes, such as divorce and child custody. But in the spring, after a Muslim group proposed creating a formalized tribunal, what had been going on quietly for more than a decade became front-page fodder and led to a government review of the law. A report is expected next month.

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While no one here expects the increasing use of sharia to lead to some of the more radical rulings associated with Islamic law - stonings or amputations - critics worry that the rights of women are being sacrificed for the sake of multiculturalism.

"It's shocking to see the seeds of an Islamic republic being sown here in Canada," one young woman shouted to vociferous applause at a recent Toronto rally, organized to denounce the practice of sharia in Ontario. "Sharia doesn't work anywhere else in the world. Why does the government believe it will work here?"

Sharia is a centuries-old Islamic system of justice based on the precepts of the Koran. It's legally used by religious scholars and imams in Ontario to mediate a narrow range of disputes - from clashes over property and inheritances, to matters in marriage and divorce.

Proponents say it is the only way Muslims can live true to their faith. Critics see it as an unsettling expansion of a system that stones women and hangs apostates in the street.

The Ontario government redrafted legislation in 1991, granting religious leaders the authority to mediate civil matters. The law, called the Arbitration Act, was designed to help unburden an already over-taxed court system. At the same time, they hoped it would enhance the country's official doctrine of multiculturalism, the notion that a society is made richer when ethnic groups are encouraged to share their cultural expression and values. Rabbis and priests have also used the act to adjudicate squabbles over everything from dietary rules to monetary disputes between parishes.

But critics of sharia charge that, in this case, the principles of multiculturalism are being exploited to enforce oppression. They argue that the practice of sharia in Canada undermines the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it discriminates against women.

"We've had a flood of e-mails from people asking, 'How can we help stop what is so dangerous to Muslim women,' " explains Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, a national organization whose 900 members come from a variety of Islamic sects. "We believe Canadian women should all live under one law."

What bridles those like Ms. Hogben is a system of justice in which divorcing women are cut off from spousal support after three months. The system also awards divorcing men with custody of the children as well as the bulk of the marital assets. Participation under the Arbitration Act is voluntary, though critics say Muslim women can be pressured in participating.

Members of Ontario's Muslim community who advocate for sharia are flummoxed. They say that the system has been working effectively for years, and when complaints do arise, the system has a built-in safeguard because people are free to appeal decisions in a traditional court.

"A lot of the hyperbole and the foreboding of doom is just nonsense," says Mubin Shaikh, a spokesman for Masjid El Noor, a Toronto Mosque. "No one is advocating amputations in the public square. We accept that the Charter of Rights is supreme. Sharia won't be used to contradict that supremacy."

But those who have been charged with reviewing the Arbitration Act confess they are concerned over whether human rights are being respected in the sharia tribunals.

"I think it's fair to say that this presented us with an opportunity to review whether the Act is meeting its goals," explains Marion Boyd, a former Attorney General with the provincial government who is spearheading the review. "We do have some questions to how the act has been interpreted."

Certainly the law doesn't provide for polygamous marriages - unions that aren't uncommon in Ontario's Muslim community and are being performed by the same religious figures adjudicating matters under sharia.

However, Ms. Boyd hints that rather than repeal the legislation, it's likely to be given a substantial makeover. Amendments could limit the scope of the legislation, excluding issues such as child and spousal support. They may also command a type of standardized training for imams and other religious figures and dictate that women entering arbitration be counseled to understand their rights under Canadian law.

Pascale Fournier, a legal scholar at McGill University in Montreal, says he believes that the law will be dramatically overhauled, affecting religious communities across the province. Jewish women have been lining up at Ms. Boyd's office charging that the Act discriminates against women in the settlement of marital and property disputes. She says Quebec could serve as a model for Ontario and elsewhere.

"In Quebec the law clearly states that it is impossible to have arbitration in matters of family law because it causes public unrest,'' explains Ms. Fournier, who has recently studied the application of sharia around the world. "In Canada we're hearing [the outcry over sharia is] based on Islamaphobia. But that's clearly not the case because other people are clearly dissatisfied," Fournier says.

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