Sharia Scare in Canada
by Stephen Schwartz
On September 11, 2005 -- perhaps thinking that on a hallowed anniversary in the war against Islamist radicalism, he was engaged in a courageous defense of Western democracy -- Dalton McGuinty, premier (equivalent to governor) of the Canadian province of Ontario, announced that no form of religious arbitration of family disputes would be permitted in his jurisdiction. McGuinty represents the Liberal party, traditionally standing for a section of the business elite favoring Canadian unity over Protestant particularism, vis-a-vis the French-speaking Catholics of Québec. His presumptive aim, widely applauded and trumpeted, was to curb the infiltration of sharia or Muslim religious law into "the true north, strong and free."
McGuinty declared "there will be one law for all Ontarians." Unfortunately, he seems not to have taken into consideration that religious arbitration courts have long served Ontarian Catholics, Jews, Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, and indigenous (tribal and Arctic) communities. To oppose the alleged Islamic threat, McGuinty announced his willingness to liquidate the family law rights of all significant religious and cultural minorities. A coalition of Canadian female advocates that included the author Margaret Atwood, and which raucously pressed for a ban on Islamic family law, also did not seem to care much about the consequences of their demands.
Ontario has recognized religious arbitration courts since 1991, and their decisions are enforceable so long as they do not contravene Canadian law. This standard is, in reality, the same proposed in Iraq by constitution writers who desire a recognition of Islam as a source of law: coexistence of religious and civil codes so long as they do not conflict, which I have called "the Israeli model". Canadian media were grossly biased in their coverage of the incident, which seemed to have ended, at least temporarily, when McGuinty was smacked by a wave of criticism, with Jews in the forefront. In Ontario as in France -- where a ban on Muslim head coverings among public school girls was protested by French Jews, anxious to preserve the right of their own children to wear head coverings -- the Jewish religious leaders were the first to defend the rights of Muslims.
Joel Richler, provincial chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, commented, "we're disappointed, we're very disappointed." Richler described the McGuinty argument as "a knee-jerk reaction to the sharia issue." An apparently non-Jewish leader of the Progressive Conservative party, the Ontario legislative opposition, with the hilarious name of John Tory, similarly denounced McGuinty for a "seat of your pants, back of the napkin approach to policy making." Frank Dimani, executive vice-president of B'nai B'rith Canada, asked, "Why destroy something that's working in the province? Why would you penalize Judaism and Christianity?"
Some Muslims argued that McGuinty had actually endangered Muslim women by his action; in refusing to allow official regulation of religious courts, he would drive those requesting religious arbitration underground. One Muslim woman, however, took credit for McGuinty's position in strident terms, verging on a fanatical denunciation of any expression of religious law. Homa Arjomand, a Canadian woman of Iranian origin, declared, "Women's rights are not protected by any religion." She went on to call for prosecution of all religious leaders participating in "faith-based arbitration," which called forth the piquant image of rabbis, Mennonite ministers, Catholic priests, and indigenous religious leaders sharing Canadian prison cells with Muslim clerics. Interfaith dialogue under such absurd conditions would certainly be novel, but one cannot suppose that McGuinty would necessarily appreciate it. For my part, I would be proud to be jailed alongside such a group.
Arjomand has lived in Canada since 1990, but her speechifying about the McGuinty decision gave the impression she was carried away by perpetual rage at events now past in Iranian history. She claimed to one avid admirer, "In Iran, [having] a computer is a crime, they want to find out why you have it. Even [possession of] a typewriter is a crime. Even searching for anything that makes copies, you are arrested. They would name you anti-Islam... [a] kafir [unbeliever] who deserves to die." While the clerical regime created by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran was itself heretical in Islamic terms, and is clearly despised by the majority of its subjects today, to paint so lurid a picture clashes with a reality that anybody who has a computer can confirm. Iranian clerical and state institutions, media, literary and artistic professionals, and a considerable number of individuals maintain websites; three million Iranians in a population of some 66 million use the internet. This would make little sense if possession of a computer were criminalized in Iran; the recent introduction of broadband would be even more incomprehensible. Don't Iranians travel to the West, as well as to East Asia, to purchase the latest in personal communication?
Indeed, in 2000, Farhang Roulani, a U.S.-based academic, published a paper with the interesting title "The Spatial Politics of Leisure: Internet Use and Access in Tehran, Iran," available here. Implicit in his observations was the (fairly obvious) point that, as in China and Saudi Arabia, personal computers are the defining symbol of prosperity. Computer acquisition and use among upwardly mobile elites inevitably brings the latter into conflict with repressive authorities. Iranian clericalists have responded to this challenge not by trying to take people's computers away, but rather by limiting access to certain sites, as China and the Saudi kingdom also do. Of course, the internet cuts both ways, enabling and encouraging radical Islamists no less than advocates of liberal political reform (see here and here).
Sharia has become something like a hate term in the West, along with "mullah." Canadian media are now replete with reprehensibly false, alarmist claims that sharia was to be "imposed" and "entrenched" in Canada, and loudly proclaimed assertions that Ontario had refused to become the first Western political entity in which such an invasive abuse might take place. That, as I have argued previously on TCS, sharia exists wherever Muslims live, if only in the form of boards licensing halal meat markets and advising on the propriety of business practices, is impossible for Canadian Islamophobes and their American imitators to conceive. Perhaps next they will call for a ban on Muslim and Jewish (kosher) slaughtering and dietary observance, and forbid religious officials to serve as advisers of faith-based economic enterprises.
The chairman of the rabbinical court of Toronto, Rabbi M.Z. Ochs, wrote in the National Post of September 17, sharply criticizing the McGuinty policy. He astutely identified the hypocrisy of claims that the abolition of religious arbitration would support democracy. He noted that Ontario does not maintain democracy or equality in education, since Catholic parochial schools are financed by the provincial government to serve the French-speaking minority, but Protestant and Jewish private schools are denied state support. Rabbi Ochs accused the Ontario authorities of "pursuing not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion."
One of the most interesting aspects of the controversy over sharia in the West is that its standard published reference works are not easily obtained by American or Canadian Muslims, because the Saudi/Wahhabi campaign for the radicalization of global Sunnism has encouraged Sunnis to turn, via internet, to Saudi clerics for sharia opinions. Westerners should deal with issues of religious law in personal affairs by educating themselves, not by hysterical agitation. As the noted critic of political Islam, Daniel Pipes, wrote early this year, "as long as women are truly not coerced (create an ombudsman to ensure this?) and Islamic rulings remain subordinate to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I see no grounds on which to deny Muslims the right, like other Canadians, to revert to private arbitration." Unfortunately, for too many reasons, such wisdom has not been heard, or understood, in Ontario.