Sharia Law Controversy

In 1991, as the full impact of a recession hit the NDP government in Ontario, it explored all avenues to cut costs. Budgets were slashed and many promises, such as public auto insurance, fell by the wayside. However, one cost-cutting initiative introduced by the then Attorney General Howard Hampton has become a headache for the McGuinty Liberals 14 years later.

The law in question is the 1991 Arbitration Act, which permitted faith-based binding arbitration as a substitute for Family Law Courts. What began as a cost-cutting measure has today split Canada’s Muslim community, made strange bedfellows of otherwise hostile faith-based groups and led to the Quebec National Assembly rejecting sharia.

The issue has also divided the Liberal Caucus, which is considering a report the Marion Boyd recommending the use of sharia law in private arbitration as a substitute for Ontario family law. But the most surprising announcement came from the author of the law–Hampton. Now the leader of the NDP, he issued a statement distancing his party from the Boyd recommendations. The statement said the NDP believes “there is sufficient evidence to conclude arbitration has no place in family law.”

Compared to Hampton and his New Democrats, other politicians seem to have their eyes set on the next elections and are responding to the power brokering of religious leaders.

Some commentators suggest Attorney general Michael Bryant faces a thankless choice: Stick with affordable but unreliable private justice or convince Ontarians to pay for a publicly funded, publicly accountable legal system. For many, this is a no-brainer.

Privatizing our judicial system is not a choice; it is a betrayal of one of the fundamental principles of civic society. Allowing for private sector, for-profit, faith-based arbitrations in areas of Family Law is a slippery slope that will open up the dismantling of many public institutions already under the threat of privatization.

If implemented, this law will also cut along class and race lines: a publicly funded, accountable legal system run by experienced judges for the mainstream Canadian society, and cheap, private-sector, part-time arbitrators for the already marginalized and recently arrived Muslim community.

For groups like the Muslim Canadian Congress, there is no such thing as a monolithic “Muslim Family/Personal Law,” which is just a euphemistically racist way of saying we will apply the equivalent to “Christian Law” or “Asian Law” or “African Law.” Authorizing private, for-profit arbitrators to substitute for judges, to apply a law that does not exist, is an insult to the common sense of all Ontarians.

Furthermore, we believe that introducing Sharia into the judicial system ghettoizes the Muslim community–which spans five different continents covering 1.3 billion people, in an extensive array of sects, languages, cultures, and customs–all into one second-class compartment in the determination of human and family law rights.

The congress believes that this insidious and discriminatory ghettoization and marginalization plays into the extreme ideological agenda of a certain sector of Muslim-Canadian proponents of “Muslim law” that is antithetical to the Constitution and Canadian values.

In addition, such a law also plays into the hands of the reactionary, intolerant and otherwise racist elements of Canadian society who want nothing better than to exclude Muslims from the mainstream.

The MCC’s opposition is not just to Sharia courts. We oppose all religious courts, whether they rabbinical, Christian or Islamic.

So far, the debate on the Boyd Report has been held at secular institutions like the St. Lawrence Centre, Central Neighbourhood House and at the Law Society. By contrast, not a single mosque, despite requests, has agreed to host such a debate. This reluctance to debate adds to our fear of leaving justice in the hands of our clergy.

The NDP and Hampton have shown rare political candour in admitting that the law they introduced is no substitute for a healthy, well-funded public justice system. Other politicians should follow their lead at Queen’s Park.

Dalton McGuinty and Bryant should not succumb to pressures from imams, rabbis and priests. They should have the courage to speak for all Ontarians and say that while they respect the desire of religious communities to use their faith-based laws to mediate and resolve problems, it is not the business of the state to validate or endorse any set of religious laws.

Tarek Fatah is the communications director of the Muslim Canadian Congress and the host of a weekly TV show on CTS-TV, The Muslim Chronicle

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