Report from an attender of the seminar:

Last Friday evening my wife and I attended a seminar at the University of Toronto on the subject of "Sharia Law and the Globilization of Political Islam".

The reason for the seminar is a strong concern about an initiative by the government of the Province of Ontario in Canada to allow for arbitration of disputes between members of the muslim community in the province, based on the provisions of Sharia law . The seminar was organized by Homa Arjomand. She is the Coordinator of the "International Campaign against Sharia Court in Canada". Homa Arjomand is a human rights activist from Iran who, for obvious reasons, fled her country in 1989 and found a safe haven in Canada. In addition to Homa, the other two panelists at the seminar were Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. Ayaan does not need an introduction to readers of this weblog, but Irshad probably does.

Irshad Manji came to Canada as a child with her family from Uganda. Her family settled in the province of British Columbia. She graduated in 1990 from the University of British Columbia with a Degree in History. She won the Governor-General's medal for top graduate of the university that year. She is the best-selling author of "The Trouble with Islam Today". Her book has been translated in many languages, including arabic and, of course, Dutch under the title "Het Islam dilemma". Irshad is well known in Ontario as the host of “Big Ideas,” a popular and stimulating television program co-produced by public education channel TVOntario. She visited the Netherlands in June 2004 as part of an international promotion tour for her book. Her views during this visit were reported in De Groene Amsterdammer. At that time she also met Ayaan Hirsi Ali and, dispite some significant differences of opinion, they appear to have developed quite a bond. Those interested can find out more about her on the website

The seminar last evening was attended by an estimated 300 people. Security was provided by about ten members of the security division of the RCMP, Canada's federal police force. No doubt Ayan's participation contributed to the need for security, but the reality of contemporary life is such that the views of the other two panelists have resulted in death threats against them as well from both Canada and abroad.

The event started with a one hour press conference, which was well attended by the media. By far most of the questions were addressed to Ayaan and they reflected a rather thorough knowledge by the media representatives about both Ayaan's personal challenges and the current political situation in the Netherlands. Let it be said that Ayaan's responses were most eloquent and gained her further respect from an already admiring audience. She was quite effective in redirecting the emphasis of the questioning to the issue of Sharia law and in articulating her support for the sponsoring organization.

After the press conference the film "Submission" was shown. It mad an obvious deep impression and was most appropriate in terms of the theme of the seminar. After the film there was a fifteen minute break. Several members of the audience commented on Ayaan's command of the English language. Not too many were aware of the fact that she obtained much of her early education in the English school system in Kenya.

After the break, the moderator introduced Ayaan Hirsi Ali as the first speaker. After he finished his introduction Ayaan proceeded to the speaker's dais, at which point the audience rose spontaneously and gave her an ovation that lasted for over a minute. It was the one moment that she lost her composure ever so slightly. Her first words were that this kind of reception was not what she had anticipated. Instead of deliveriing a prepared speech, she asked audience members to present questions to her so that she could directly respond to their interest. It turned out to be a most stimulating and informative format. She provided great insight into the considerable risks of facilitating Sharia law as an element of a legitimized quasi-legal process, particulary in the area of family law.

The next speaker was Irshad Manji. Let it be said that it is no easy matter to follow someone like Ayaan on the speakers' platform. As usual, however, she was up to the task. Irshad is one of the most dynamic public speakers in Canada. She brings insight, intelligence, wit, focus, eloquence and a supreme confidence to the speakers podium. She addressed the dangers of the application of Sharia law head on and stressed the naivite of those who think that safeguards can be developed to protect women and children from arbitration decisions that are against their interests within a traditionalist muslim culture.

The last speaker was Homa Arjomand. While she did not have the dynamism and stage presence of the preceding speakers, she conveyed a sense of personal anguish about the prospects of the proposed legislation that resonated with the audience. Her personal experiences under a repressive regime in Iran and her passion about the cause she is leading strongly stimulated a commitment by the audience to redouble their efforts to prevent the application of any form of Sharia to become legislated reality.

The event ended with an interesting interaction between Irshad and Ayaan. Irshad asked the moderator to allow her to relate a personal conversation she had with Ayaan while she was visiting the Netherlands. Despite her deep concerns about Islam, Irshad is committed to remain a muslim. She had asked Ayaan during that conversation what she thought about that commitment, fully expecting that Ayaan would tell her that she could not support it. To her surprise, Ayaan told her how important it was to the muslim community at large for Irshad to maintain the faith and to continue stimulating reformation of Islam from the inside.

Just a brief note on the initiative in Ontario to introduce Sharia based arbitration. It is envisaged that such arbitration would be based on the principles inherent in Sharia law. The current legislation governing arbitration allows for dispute settlements outside the formal court system. Such arbitration is only allowed if all parties to the dispute agree to it. An important reason for this legislation is that the regular court system in the province currently has serious difficulties coping with the total case load in the legal system. It should also be noted that such arbitration is allowed for members of the Christian and Jewish communities. An additional factor to be considered is that the Legislature of the Province of Quebec has rejected the request from Muslim community organizations to implement similar legislation.

More information about this can be obtained from the website of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada at

From that site one can also download the report, titled “Dispute Resolution in Family Law: Protecting Choice, Promoting Inclusion” that was prepared by Marian Boyd, a past member and minister of the Ontario Government. She was engaged by the present government to evaluate the issues surrounding the introduction of Sharia law and recommended proceeding with the legislation under certain conditions.

The executive summary of her report can be found here...





By Nancy


It was a hot August night in the hottest Toronto summer since 1959. The original venue for the Forum on Sharia Law and Political Islam had been changed at the last minute, from OISE to the Earth Sciences Building at the U of T. Following homemade signs posted on the street, we managed to find it. When my son and I arrived, Dutch Parliament Member Ayaan Hirsi Ali was giving a press conference, surrounded by reporters and TV crews. Behind the media representatives we glimpsed this slim, self-confident Somali-Dutch woman, dressed in a crimson pantsuit-no sign of the person forced into hiding for a year after her friend, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed on an Amsterdam street for directing their collaborative film about the plight of Muslim women, Submission.  (When Van Gogh’s killer was caught and sentenced he refused to voice remorse for the murder.) Part of the evening ahead would be devoted to showing the film.


The equally impressive panel that evening included “No Sharia” organizer Homa Arjomand, who endured the Iranian religious revolution and who now works with abused women in the province, as well as frequent TVO contributor, campus speaker and author Irshad Manji. Two things immediately stood out: the number of plainclothes RCMP officers in the auditorium-I counted more than a dozen-their eyes constantly flicking over the audience; the other, which someone later joked about, was that the hall was full (with several hundred people) on a summer’s night when more reasonable beings would be at the cottage. The reason for this was that the looming threat of Sharia Law as a choice for mediated disputes in Ontario Family Courts (under a proposal drafted by Marian Boyd), had alarmed a sufficient number of Ontarians-starting, it must be said, with Muslim women themselves. The “Globalization of Islam” the second part of the evening’s title, with its reference to the deliberate spreading of fundamentalist Islam, might have explained the presence of so many officers of the law, both in and out of uniform.


The tone of the night’s speeches was uniformly serious, passionate, and lively. After all three women spoke feelingly about their experiences and views on women and Islam, the line of questioners grew long. Here are just a few examples from the Q&A: a woman physician covered, in Iranian style, spoke of the true freedom she experienced as a Muslim woman; she challenged Ms. Ali, saying that the women who suffered under Sharia did not understand Islam’s true nature. Ali complimented her on her achievements, replying that if all Muslim women had her education they too might understand [earlier Ali had spoken of girls disappearing from the school system in Holland to be married off at young ages]. A male speaker disputed the Arabic meaning of a famous passage in the Qur’an, claiming the word meant not ‘beat your wife’ but ‘lead her.’ When asked by another man why he could not use Sharia to settle estate claims between himself and his sister, Ms Ali allowed that this was not her real concern-that she was worried about the law’s imprisoning effect on women and children. A long-time woman activist complained that she’d felt shut out by the left by being told she was ‘racist’ when she disagreed with feminist decisions not to condemn practices like Female Genital Mutilation. Irshad Manji answered this and other suggestions of racism (some from Muslim audience members) by urging that we never let ourselves be silenced with the slur of being called racist. Manji, interestingly, calls herself a practising Muslim (Ali calls herself secular) who writes of the need for reform in her book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her faith.  Part of the film was shown after intermission; a longer section of what’s easily available on the internet. A young covered wife prays to Allah for help in various domestic situations; parts of the Qur’an are periodically shown printed on her skin, symbolism that is nothing-it would seem-to be killed for. 


As for me, I came away heartened to have spent time among so many brave, articulate, and engaged people. The audience was not just the ‘usual suspects’ of well-meaning middle-class Canadians-not, as Seinfeld famously said, that there’s anything wrong with that. We were the new Canada: all ages, shades, accents, and styles of dress, free to speak our minds. At intermission, my son and I passed a number of tables where various groups had petitions and donation boxes, a reminder that many, many others don’t enjoy our freedoms. My son bought a copy of Irshad Manji’s book; on the title page she wrote: “Thanks for thinking, Max.” That says it all.


Report by Toronto Star


Aug. 13, 2005. 01:00 AM

Activists speak out against Sharia
Trio of women under threat

Dutch writer sees dire results ahead


Three women facing death threats appeared in public under heavy security last night to denounce a provincial move that would allow Muslims here to settle family disputes in accordance with religious laws, outside the court system.

The activists, including Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, say the religious laws known as Sharia discriminate against women.
"Why, if you have equal rights in Canada, would you take them away from Muslim women?" Hirsi Ali asked.

She was joined by Homa Arjomand and Irshad Manji in a University of Toronto auditorium for an event in support of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada.

Hirsi Ali scripted a controversial film on women and Islam called Submission, whose director, Theo van Gogh, was killed on an Amsterdam street last November because of its critical view of how Muslim women are treated within their religion. The Dutch-born Muslim later convicted left a note pinned to van Gogh's body with a knife, threatening Hirsi Ali's life.

Arjomand, who fled Iran in 1989, heads the campaign to stop Sharia in Ontario.

Toronto journalist Manji has also written and spoken critically about the treatment of Muslim women. All three women have received death threats.

Sharia, a broad set of laws derived from the Qur'an and sayings of Mohammed, is being considered in a limited way under Ontario's Arbitration Act, a law that allows religious groups such as Catholics and Orthodox Jews to mediate marital and family disputes as long as all participants agree and rulings don't contravene Canadian law.

But opponents say women will be treated unfairly if it's used. "All religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — in dealing with family law tend to discriminate against women," Hirsi Ali said. "Sharia law is very explicit. Men are guardians of women. Women are supposed to take permission from their husbands."

Submission was screened at the event. In one vignette, a Muslim woman has sex with her boyfriend. He leaves her and she is flogged. "That's what Sharia would look like," Hirsi Ali said