Canada is embarking on an unusual judicial experiment that will allow members of its Muslim community to submit to the teachings of the Koran to resolve a variety of civil legal disputes, ranging from divorces to business conflicts.
The new model, which will be closely examined by other countries grappling with the place of growing Muslim communities in their populations, is to be administered by a body of imams and Islamic scholars, the Islamic Institute of Justice, which was created at the end of last year.
It will be pioneered in the province of Ontario under a law introduced in 1991, the Ontario Arbitration Act, which allows minority groups to provide arbitration to members in a limited number of civil matters. Enforcement of rulings and awards would be left to Canada’s regular courts.
Many of Canada’s 600,000 Muslims have applauded the opportunity to settle differences according to Islamic law. Known as shariah, it is drawn from the Koran and from the teachings of the prophet Mohamed. It is hoped that if significant numbers of Muslims agree to settle disputes before the arbitrators, pressure will be taken off the province’s clogged court system. “Many judges prefer this,” said Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. “If Canadian Muslims have an impartial body they trust, it will ease the backlog in the courts.”
Controversy surrounds the initiative even within the Muslim community. Suggestions that it could lead to the stoning of women for adultery have been swiftly knocked down by Canadian authorities, who point out that the new courts would still have to respect all provisions of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees human and equal rights. But they will not be allowed to deal with criminal matters. Ontario’s government is insisting that cases will only go before Muslim arbitrators with the voluntary assent of all parties involved.
Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario attorney general, said: “If the award is not compatible with Canadian law, then the court will not enforce it. You can’t agree to violate Canadian law.”
There is also the concern among some Muslim women that they will feel religious and social pressure to enter the Sharia system when sometimes they would rather avoid it.
“If I am a woman of faith, and the community of people who see themselves as leaders say that if I do not follow the sharia court here, the Islamic Institute, then I will be tantamount to blasphemy and apostasy,” said Alia Hogben of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.