Framing the Shariah debate


In a post-9/11 world such as this – where well-intentioned white liberals have temporarily de-emphasized their personal campaigns to smile awkwardly at every black person they pass on the street in order to concentrate on smiling awkwardly at every woman they come across in a head scarf – it’s difficult to know how to navigate a perilous discussion such as the one surrounding the possible introduction of Shariah courts in Canada. Last Thursday, a day after demonstrations held in cities across the country opposing the proposed introduction of Islamic tribunals to mediate disputes within a limited jurisdiction in Ontario, I received an e-mail from a local South Asian activist who summed up the dilemma facing progressives dealing with the issue: “Although there is understandably much hesitancy amongst the left/progressive movement to take this on or to get involved for fear of playing into right-wing politics, it is time to offer tangible support to Muslim womyn, queers, secularists fighting this.”

“Shariah” is a term encompassing a broad collection of laws and over a thousand years worth of jurisprudential study based on the Qu’ran and the Sunnah or Hadith (guidelines based on lessons from the life examples and specific instructions of the Prophet Muhammad). There are several schools of Shariah law, some emphasizing traditional Islamic concepts such as itjihad, or the application of human reason and rationale. Other interpretations – such as the Wahabi current enforced by Washington’s Saudi allies – insist that the “gates of itjihad” have been closed for centuries, and invent an imagined, archaic set of laws that enshrine the sanctity of ersatz-medieval social customs while still allowing for enormous fleets of Mercedes and multi-billion dollar luxury hotels.

The current debate in Canada is largely being framed in terms of a collision – dare I say ‘clash’? – between two competing, immutable, centuries-old intellectual traditions: on the one hand, modern Islamic law-making and, and the other, the Enlightenment ideals dictating the separation of Church and state (or, in this case, Mosque and state). Within that framework, the worst elements of such disparate phenomena as racism, pluralism and multiculturalism are rendering toxic a discourse that either hides a regressive, thin-edge-of-the-wedge establishment of ghettoized religious courts behind a wall of banal pleasantries about diversity, or else appeals to the basest Islamophobia and prejudice in opposition to it. Hence the first page of a Google search on “Shariah in Canada” offers a host of apologia as well as a link screeching “Sharia law is being practiced in Canada! Muslim invasion has begun…”

The e-mail that I quoted earlier goes a long way towards dispelling this view of the issue, placing it in its proper, present-day context, explaining that the move towards Canadian Shariah “is merely another means for the Canadian govt to appease and co-opt some of our people and our communities who have been fighting, particularly in the post 9/11 climate, and to silence our progressive, democratic movements by trying to legitimize oppressive and regressive legal instruments simply by deeming them ‘our own’ through this guise of multiculturalism.”

The move towards introducing Islamic courts in Canada, though regressive, is not backward-looking, but the most sinister kind of forward thinking: in a social and legal context in which Muslims have been not only pushed out of the Canadian legal system but held to be its main antagonists, a new umbrella must be set up under which to administer their needs. As legal aid funds disappear, and legal services once offered to refugees are no longer available, and as Canadian law continues to be practiced along lines which define Muslim communities as exceptions to the rule of law (such as the case of Maher Arar), there must be a flip-side to that ghettoization and marginalization. Shariah courts mark the ‘opportunity’ for some layers of the Muslim community in the face of the ‘crises’ of a general democratic breakdown and campaign of scapegoating. Like the removal of farm labour (performed by an overwhelmingly Indo-Canadian workforce) from the protections offered by the Employment Standards act, the move towards Shariah is part of a broader campaign to legally codify the second and third class citizenships of immigrants and people of colour.

Democratically-minded Canadians ought certainly to oppose the introduction of religious courts in this country, but not primarily because of some abstract allegiance to the concept of the separation of religion from matters of state. In the face of a very real and contemporary onslaught on the rights of a persecuted minority, we ought to insist that the fundamental egalitarian principles of equality before the law and access to the courts of the land be upheld, and that no Jim Crow standards be allowed in our legal system.

In the meantime, good luck with your awkward smiles.

“Salami sandwich, sister!”

“Walaikum as salaam.”

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