Women’s groups and moderate Muslims in the nation’s largest province are outraged at the recommendation by former attorney-general Marion Boyd to allow arbitration tribunals to be governed by the principles of Sharia – the code of Islamic law.
The ruling is the latest challenge for multicultural Canada, whose open-door policy to immigrants is under strain from the post-11 September terrorist threat.
The proposal is also certain to raise eyebrows in the United States where a belief already exists that its northern neighbour and largest trading partner is honeycombed with Islamic radicals.
Critics of tribunals based on Sharia law claim they would allow Islamic jurisprudence to swell beyond the scope of family law, potentially exposing vulnerable groups – particularly women – to unjust treatment in the eyes of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
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“We’ve had a flood of e-mails from people, asking: ‘How can we help?’” said Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.
She said there is great concern that Muslim women may now be coerced into taking part in Sharia tribunals or face family and community ostracism, or worse. “When you come to Canada, you are a human being with full rights. Allowing Sharia here – even a ‘Canadianised’ version as its proponents claim it would be – will subject Muslim women to a huge injustice.”
The scope of a traditional Sharia tribunal is extensive and includes a canon of criminal law which is incompatible with the Canadian constitution, most experts agree.
Ms Boyd was appointed to study the issue after the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice requested the right to offer religious-based arbitrations for family disputes based on Sharia.
The proposal immediately ran into opposition from women’s groups, legal organisations and the Muslim Canadian Congress, who all warned that the 1,400-year-old Sharia does not view women as equal.
Ms Boyd recommended that the option to hold a Sharia tribunal be incorporated into Canada’s Arbitration act. She suggested mediators screen each party separately about issues of power imbalance and domestic violence before they enter into an arbitration agreement.
She also said the government should work with mediators and other professional organisations to develop a standard screening process for domestic violence.
Moderate Muslim cleric Ahmad Kutty – one of two Canadian imams who made headlines a year ago when they were thrown out of the US on suspicions of terrorism – has rejected the proposals. “Sharia is a loaded word; it includes all of the civil, criminal and other institutions associated with the Islamic legal system,” he said. “No-one in his right mind would propose implementing this system of laws in Canada.”
But Syed Mumtaz Ali of the Canadian Islamic Legal Institute said that freedom of religion is guaranteed under Canada’s Constitution. And it means not only freedom to practise and propagate religion but also to be able to be governed by one’s religious laws in all aspects of one’s life.