The New York Times has at last taken notice of the prospect of Sharia law coming to Canada, which we have been following here for many months. (Thanks to all who sent this in.) To their credit, they actually explore a bit of the downside.
A group called the Canadian Society of Muslims is testing those boundaries by establishing the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice to apply the legal code called Shariah, based on the Koran, to settle disputes over property, inheritance, marriage and divorce.
The prospect of Shariah’s operating openly here has already stirred a powerful controversy centering on an uncomfortable issue for any liberal society with an expanding Muslim population that now numbers 600,000: Can a predominately Judeo-Christian society trust Islamic religious rules to protect the rights of all individuals?
The Muslim group is acting under an Ontario provincial law passed in 1991 that gave religious authorities the power to arbitrate civil matters as long as the people seeking arbitration do so voluntarily and are free to appeal those decisions in Canadian courts.
Under the law, Jews and Christians have settled a relatively narrow number of issues without going through the courts. Rabbis have granted religious divorces, decided on matters relating to kosher dietary laws and arbitrated business disputes. Catholic couples have gone to priests to annul marriages, while churches of various dominations have settled disputes related to inappropriate behavior of ministers and monetary disagreements within and between parishes.
But the Islamic Institute wants imams and other arbitrators to decide a broader range of issues. For Syed Mumtaz Ali, 77, an India-born Islamic lawyer and scholar who is the driving intellectual force behind the institute, a Muslim cannot be a Muslim without following Shariah.
“Basically, Muslims live a different kind of life from the Western life, which is secular,” he noted in an interview. “Everything we do is governed by religious law.” For Mr. Ali, it is perfectly acceptable that a son receive twice the inheritance of a daughter and that a man have the automatic right to divorce while a woman does not.
Muslim arbitrators have not made a single public decision yet, but Canada would presumably never allow the stoning of adulterous women or cutting off the hand of a thief, both allowable forms of punishment in some Muslim societies under an extreme variation of Shariah.
Critics say that Shariah contradicts the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s bill of rights, which guarantees the equality of men and women. Under Canadian family law, for instance, men and women have equal rights to inheritance and property acquired during a marriage.
Canadians voluntarily waive their legal rights all the time, but it is the obligation of the courts to ensure that they have independent legal advice before doing so. Critics of Shariah say Muslim women would be deprived of their rights because, even after emigrating, they frequently live in isolation from the broader society and are beholden to men who routinely tell them what to do and say.
“I don’t see how it can be voluntary,” said Shahira Hafez, 53, an Egyptian-born anesthesiologist and treasurer of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, “when all these women from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are kept isolated in their own communities, do not learn English and only deal with the outer society through their husband and their husband’s family.”