The folly of sharia in Ontario

Headshot of Lysiane Gagnon




Monday, September 5, 2005 Page A15 Globe and Mail



It was with nearly unanimous indignation that Quebeckers learned that, thanks to the Ontario government, Canada might become the first Western country to legalize sharia-based tribunals to settle marital and civil disputes -- and this, against the wishes of countless Muslim women.


>From the start, a Montreal-based coalition joined hands with an Ontario

lobby against the project. One of the most outspoken opponents was Quebec Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin, a Muslim raised in Morocco. In May, she sponsored a motion against faith-based tribunals that was unanimously adopted by Quebec's National Assembly. Now, the opposition has spread to Europe.


This week, protest marches will be held in various cities, from London to Paris to Stockholm to Düsseldorf, against this strange Canadian initiative.


Nobody believes that adulterous women are about to be stoned on Ste-Catherine Street, but the sanctioning of sharia-based civil rules by a liberal democracy -- a clear case of multiculturalism gone mad -- is ample cause for worry. The gradual implantation of sharia in Western countries is part of an extremist Islamist agenda.



"If Western countries accept such a regression, just imagine the effect it will have on women who live in Muslim countries," says Michèle Vianes, a co-ordinator of the protest in France who is in close contact with women's rights organizations in North Africa.


There is no sound argument that can support such a move. In her infamous review of Ontario's Arbitration Act, former Ontario attorney-general Marion Boyd said that, since religious arbitration in family matters is already going on, it's better to regulate it.


This reasoning makes no sense. To take an extreme example, incest is committed every day behind closed doors. Should the state step in and draw up rules to limit the damage?


We are asked to believe that the decisions of the religious panels will respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is oxymoronic, since sharia

-- in its various interpretations -- is inherently incompatible with a key element of the Charter: equality between men and women. It discriminates against women on such basic matters as divorce, inheritance rights and child custody.


Ah well, we're then told, there will be safeguards since the arbitrators'

decisions will be reviewed by Ontario Superior Court judges. But considering the backlog that hampers the mainstream legal system, one wonders why judges should be required to spend time reviewing a series of religious verdicts.


Faced with the likelihood that observant Muslim women -- or women married to observant Muslim men -- will be pressed to comply with the sharia-based process, Ms. Boyd devised a complicated, heavily bureaucratic and completely unrealistic formula.


Let's apply a little bit of Cartesian logic to the situation. If the sharia-inspired decisions are compatible with the Charter, why allow a sharia-based tribunal in place of a regular court? And if the sharia-inspired decisions are not compatible with the Charter, why allow a system that goes against Canadian values? There is a simpler, safer way to ensure fairness in our society: Let everyone, regardless of gender and faith, be judged by the same principles.


Quebec is protected from this current folly by its clear and precise civil code. In January, the province's justice minister said it was "out of the question" to change the code to allow for faith-based tribunals.


For years, Quebec has allowed private disputes to be settled by a system of arbitration. But contrary to the Ontario project, the scope of these panels is very limited, and they must be headed by lawyers rather than clerics.


This system has occasionally been used by some ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as by Muslims. B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish lobby group, wants religious groups to have more power, and that is why it is one of the few organizations to support the Ontario project.