Here at Jihad Watch we were among the first to express concern about Canada’s Sharia courts, even when our friends at the National Post were downplaying their significance. Now it seems as if others are catching up: even the left-leaning Toronto Star (thanks to Earl) is waking up. This is a very positive development — I have long maintained that the struggle against global jihad is not a right-wing issue, but a human rights issue that should concern all Western political factions. The Left, however, has been slow to catch on:
Alia Hogben doesn’t want to be waging a public battle with her fellow Muslims. But she and other women such as her are speaking out these days because they fear Muslim women’s rights will be threatened by new civil tribunals due to open soon in Ontario.
What is upsetting Hogben and many other Muslim women in the province is that the tribunals will arbitrate marriage, family and business disputes based on Sharia, a 1,300-year-old body of Islamic laws.
There is nothing novel in such arbitration tribunals. Ontario has used them for years, as an alternative to the overcrowded courts handling such issues as divorce, child custody and inheritance cases.
Some of these tribunals are run by religious groups “” Hassidic Jews have had their own legally binding arbitrations for years, as have some Catholics and Ismaili Muslims. However, the vast majority are non-secular, operated by professionals trained in dispute resolution.
The proponents of the Muslim tribunals, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice, chafe at suggestions the tribunals won’t be fair to women. The supporters say they will live by the same rules as everyone else. They will be guided by a “Canadianized sharia,” says Syed Mumtaz Ali, the retired lawyer who is the driving force behind the tribunals.
In other words, if there is a conflict between Sharia and Canadian law, the law of this country will prevail. In fact, the legislation provides that no ruling by any such tribunals, regardless of who runs them, can violate provincial law or contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights.
But Hogben, head of the 900-member Canadian Council of Muslim Women, remains unconvinced. While Islamic law is often portrayed as being biased against women, in fact the Qu’ran espouses the equality of the sexes. But like Jewish law and Christian canon law, Islamic law has been applied in different ways in different times and places.
At times, practising Muslims admit, Sharia law has been misused to deprive women of their rights. Critics question whether the proposed tribunals will, for instance, favour men over women in pre-marital agreements or in divorce settlements.
The Arbitration Act, which governs tribunals, provides safeguards against wrongdoing. Besides decreeing that rulings must be consistent with Canadian laws, it ensures there is a right to appeal decisions to a regular court. And choosing to use a tribunal is voluntary. No one can be forced to give up their right to have a case heard in a regular court.
But again critics question whether the process will indeed be voluntary, or whether women will be pressured by their religious leaders and their communities into participating. Immigrants, who do not know the English language or their rights in Canada, would be especially vulnerable.
“Women are afraid they will not be `good’ Muslims if they don’t go along with (the tribunals) or that they’ll be accused of blasphemy,” Hogben says.
Clearly, the situation calls for vigilance, both by Muslims and by the Ontario government. Ali has said critics are welcome to monitor any arbitration, appearing as friends of the court, if they think the rights of women will be violated. Critics should be prepared to take him up on his offer.
At the same time, all participants need to fully understand their Charter rights when they appear before a tribunal, whether it be run by Muslims, Jews, Catholics or anyone else. They also need to know their participation is voluntary, and that they can appeal any decision they feel is unjust.
It may be that an education campaign, especially in immigrant communities, is needed to inform people of their rights.
It may also be that the act needs to be bolstered so tribunals are required to explain the decisions behind their rulings in writing.
The crucial part is that everyone who becomes involved in the tribunals needs to clearly understand that, in Canada, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is supreme over all other laws.
No tribunal can deal away those rights.