OTTAWA (CP) – Protesters will take to the streets this week in cities from Amsterdam to Victoria, all because of a bureaucratic proposal that would allow Islamic law to be used in Ontario family arbitration cases.
The long-delayed decision on whether to formally include – and regulate – Shariah religious arbitration in the province has raised alarms among Canadian and European women’s groups, dissidents from hardline Islamic states such as Iran, human-rights activists, writers and humanist advocates.
Almost 100 organizations have banded together under the banner of the International Campaign against Shariah Court in Canada. On Thursday, they’ll march in six European cities and at least five in Canada.
Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo, Ont., Montreal and Victoria all have protests planned, along with Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Gutenberg, Stockholm, London and Paris.
Sohaila Sharifi, an Iranian emigrant who is organizing the protest in front of the Canadian High Commission in London, said the Ontario situation is emblematic of a global battle between secular societies and “political Islam.”
“If they win this fight in Canada, there is always the possibility that they would see it as a victory that could bring them one step forward,” Sharifi said in an e-mail exchange.
“They would use the same argument to establish the same religious system here in Europe and elsewhere.”
The “they” in question represent an odd, informal coalition of hardline Islamic fundamentalists, mainstream Muslim groups and a former NDP attorney general from Ontario who studied the issue at length and came up with the current proposal.
But Marion Boyd’s vision of provincially regulated religious arbitration – an existing 15-year-old system that would be further tightened under the mantle of Ontario family law and Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms – bears little resemblance to the Shariah law being debated by warring camps.
The Boyd report was prompted by a retired Muslim lawyer, who in 2003 announced he was setting up the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice to train arbitrators to use Ontario’s existing arbitration act. But Syed Mumtaz Ali’s view of Shariah was unabashedly fundamentalist and political.
The Ontario government ducked for cover by asking Boyd to examine the issue. It has sat on her report since last December.
In the meantime, opponents have dug in.
“The volatility of the debate has a lot to do with what people have experienced in countries like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, where there is no doubt that Islamic law – particularly these medieval rules of law – are being enforced in various ways and have the effect of discriminating against women,” said Anver Emon, an American scholar in Islamic law recently hired by the University of Toronto.
But Emon said both extremes in the debate are choosing to define Islamic law as a medieval model that simply will not fit in the modern Canadian context.
“What’s interesting is both of these (warring) groups have the same conception of Shariah: it’s these medieval rules,” he said.
“Both of them adopt the same definition and both adopt the kind of fundamentalism about the law that you find in the Wahhabi circles: that Islamic law is nothing more than this strict, really rigorous, fundamentalist, literal reading of the Qur’an, the traditions of the prophet and these medieval rules.
“My retort is, certainly the process of Shariah is a very different conception than simply the rules of Shariah.”
Emon said there’s an entire medieval legal theory in Islamic law “that no one seems to be talking about.”
That theory, said Emon, explains Islamic law as an interpretive process in which the norms and cultures of society are constantly engaged to construct a legal system.
But try telling that to advocates such as Michele Vianes, president of the Paris-based group Regards de femmes.
In France, proponents of Shariah courts have served to isolate young Muslim girls, for instance, by insisting they must not consort with males, even in school classrooms.
Political Islam doesn’t recognize secular law, Vienes said in an interview.
“For all Europeans, women particularly, we think Canada is a country where women’s rights are very strong. For us, it is unbelievable that Shariah institutes are possible in Canada.”
Their protests this week, she said, are aimed both at sending a clear message to their own governments and to the current attorney general of Ontario.
“We hope that all together we can make a difference, change the law in Ontario and (make) Mr. Michael Bryant change his mind.”