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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 August, 2004, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Shari'a law
In Canada, the government of Ontario is considering whether to allow Muslim Courts to resolve civil law disputes by arbitration.

That means Canadian Courts would uphold decisions made by Sharia Law on divorce, inheritance and business wrangles, provided those rulings did not violate Canada's charter of rights.

But such a move would create enormous controversy because critics, claim Sharia discriminates against women, and that it does not accord them the same rights as men.

Laura Trevelyan reported from Toronto.

Symbols of modern Canada, where the cultures of Islam and fast food co-exist. In the daily rush for the subway, the diversity of the nation is on display. This country is defined by its tolerance. The rights of French Canadians, one minority, written into the constitution. But now an attempt by Muslims to get government backing for Islamic law is proving highly contentious.

(Founder, Islamic Institute of Civil Justice)

If I pray, if I do business, if I interact with other people, every act of your life is to be governed and you have to obey the law in that respect. That was Islam and that's what being a Muslim is all about. If you are not obeying the law, you are not a Muslim. That's all there is to it.

It scares me. I feel betrayed if that happens in Canada because I came to Canada to escape from that. I know what it means to live under Shari'a law, for a woman.

Right now in Toronto, the spirit of multiculturalism is being tested to its very limit. The question being asked here is, can this tolerant society trust Islamic religious law to protect the rights of everyone? The issue is so controversial because of the legacy of 9/11. Any attempt by Muslims to assert their rights can be misinterpreted by those who fear the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Friday prayers at a Toronto mosque draw several thousand. Muslims are a fast-growing minority in Canada. So an Islamic group in Ontario wants Shari'a courts, whose judgments are based on the Koran, to settle civil disputes by arbitration. Other religions already settle divorce and inheritance wrangles under and arbitration act passed in this province. Canadian courts have to uphold decisions provided they don't conflict with the charter of rights. There is the rub. Critics claim Islam discriminates against women.

In this Toronto suburb, with all the trappings of comfortable North American life, is the man who wants to bring Shari'a law to Canada. Indian born Syed Mumtaz Ali was the first ever Muslim lawyer to qualify here and he swore his oath on the Koran. Now there are 600,000 Muslims in Canada, he says it's time for Shari'a to be recognised.

The pressure is building up now for the people who are getting frustrated, and they feel we cannot live out our own religion. We have to do something.

Why are you doing this now?

It is being done behind the scenes, in the ghettos in the back alleys. Why not bring it into the open? At least it can have some sort of regulation and discipline brought to it.

But there are those who shudder when they hear the word "Shari'a". These two women are Iranian exiles campaigning against the courts. To them Islamic law is repressive.

It means a woman is not a full person. At best, it's half a man. Doesn't have right to divorce.

I was arrested by the Islamic regime. I was tortured physically, emotionally, mentally for years. I was in a solitary cell for 14 months itself, and I had to escape the Islamic regime. I had to escape. I know what is the women's situation under the Islamic situation, under Shari'a law. I don't want it in Canada.

Decorative copies of the Koran pull in the visitors in a Toronto museum. There is a desire to know more about Islam. Supporters of the arbitration courts say their opponents are ignorant of how Shari'a law would be practised in Canada, but the hostility has provoked the Ontario government to review the Arbitration Act. It looks as though the courts will be allowed, with safeguards, to ensure Muslim women know their rights under Canadian law as well as the Koran. The woman in charge of the review told us the government would find it hard to stop Muslims from having their own procedure.

(Leader, Ontario government review)

Our constitution guarantees equity on ethnic grounds, on religious grounds, on racial grounds, as well as gender grounds. If we are saying to groups that have been in existence for a long time, "It's OK to have rabbinical courts for this particular group" but it's not OK for an avenue for private resolution of disputes in the Muslim community, what are we saying?

An argument echoed by orthodox Jews here. Followers of the Torah and Koran are not obvious allies, but over this, the right of religious groups to have their own courts, there is an outbreak of unity.

(Secretary, Toronto Beth Din)

I think it's critical that the government find a balance between allowing religious people to do what they feel they need to do religiously. A religious Jew feels he wants to have his dispute settled in a Jewish court, so he has to have the right to do that. The Muslim world, people want the same thing.

But what about the rights of Muslim women in all this? Only a man can pronounce a divorce under Islam, and women inherit less money than men. I asked a group of Muslims who want to take part in the courts how women would be treated?

We have certain models in Pakistan and Nigeria where, unfortunately, the practice of Muslims has been that women have been discriminated, but my view is that it doesn't have to be that way, and Shari'a is not carved in stone. It's not rigid. It's not intrinsically misogynist and it can be brought in line with modern notions of gender equality.

Are you saying it would be possible for a woman to get as much money from a divorce settlement as a man?

Absolutely, if not more.

What is equality? There are many definitions of it. I think the main issue is that the Western, secular version of equality is not what you will find with Islam.

If you take my word for it, I think women will be better off actually, going through the Shari'a tribunals, because according to Islam women are supposed to keep their property.

Maybe, but what about daughters who inherit money? Why do they get less than the sons, I asked?

In Islam, every right has a corresponding responsibility. So the man has the responsibility to provide for his, not only his immediate family, but in case he has a widowed sister or widowed aunt, he has to provide for them as well. So there are many claims on his income, whereas there are no claims on the woman's income.

It all seems perfectly reasonable to believers in Islam, but what impact is this impact having in the wider Canadian world? At the University of Toronto, Middle Eastern studies is growing more popular. Here they are debating political Islam.

(University of Toronto)

The way it comes into the factor is because of the authoritarian aspect of the state crushing secular civil society.

There was concern here about how Islamic arbitration courts might go down with non- Muslims.

If we were to introduce Shari'a law, that would be a plus for the Muslim community, but then there are also instances, in Toronto in particular, where you can't call it a Christmas tree any more. It's a "holiday tree" now. Just things like that where they need to find a balance.

Once you start applying different rules to different people, that could be problematic. There could be backlash. Muslims are running into the problem, instead of integrating into the Western society, they are now just standing out more. There could be a point of conflict.

If it does remain a choice for them to be arbitrated, I don't see it as a problem, nor do I see a conflict with Canadian values.

It comes back to basic essentialised versions of what the Middle East and Muslims are. They wear the burka, follow Shari'a law they authoritarian. That negates a more progressive image of Muslims in North America.

That's not how their lecturer sees it, though. If the Shari'a courts are a success, he believes this could be a defining moment for the future of Islam.

(University of Toronto)

There is a possibility for the development of a progressive theology within the Muslim world for perhaps the first time. That will, I think, force the Muslim community in Canada to really examine a set of issues that previously have not been examined. To put it in a nutshell, that would effectively be due the judgments that are rendered in a court based on Islamic principles, do they meet with modern standards of justice compatible with a liberal democracy in the beginning of the 21st century. There is a potential here for something positive to come out in terms of a Canadian contribution to an Islamic reformation.

What happens next is a test of the multicultural ideal. Muslims have been under siege since 9/11, blamed, bewildered and beleaguered. Shari'a courts in Canada are an opportunity to show the world a modern face of Islam. If the religious courts operate as their detractors expect, Muslims will have lost a chance to demonstrate that Shari'a can operate without threatening the West and its values.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
reported from Canada, where the government of Ontario is considering whether to allow Muslim Courts to resolve civil law disputes by arbitration.


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