Proposed Islamic Arbitration Tribunals Trigger Intense Debate in Canada
    By Anne Pélouas
 Le Monde

    Thursday 05 May 2005

    "If you put one finger in that wringer, your whole body will follow." Fatima Houda-Pépin, Muslim Québec Deputy, her voice strong, like those of the other women who are trying now to prevent Canada from becoming the first Western democracy to allow Islamic courts - even if only arbitration courts - to settle family differences by sharia.

    The argument has been simmering since 2002, the year when the project was put on the table in Ontario - the province where over a third of Canada's 600,000 Muslims live - by Syed Mumtaz Ali. The president of the Canadian Muslims' Society demanded that the government revise a 1991 law allowing numerous civil and commercial differences to be settled by arbitration. The objective was to go still further by establishing a structured network of Islamic arbitration courts.

    In response, the provincial government ordered a report from Procurer General Marion Boyd. In December 2004, she said yes to religious arbitration to settle family differences (guardianship of children, disposition of assets in cases of separation ...) in the name of defending minority rights as well as from a desire to unclog the civil courts.

    It's that report that put fire to the powder. Conservative Muslims applauded with both hands, but the report rather embarrasses the Ontario government. It has neither reacted to Mrs. Boyd's recommendations nor indicated when it will make a decision. Recently a justice department spokesperson, Brendan Crawley, simply indicated that revision of the 1991 law was "a government priority."

    The opposition side is already in battle formation. A petition launched on the Internet site by a Toronto woman of Iranian extraction, Homa Arjomand, has already received 10,000 signatures. Just recently, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, from the London-based network Women under Muslim Laws, came to support the associations that militate against the proposal. The subject is the order of the day for an international meeting scheduled for May 12-14 in Montréal on "Fundamentalism and Human Rights," then a big public meeting against the creation of Islamic tribunals in Ottawa on May 17. The international campaign will intensify this summer with demonstrations in front of Canadian embassies.

    Equality of Law

    The Muslim community itself is divided on the subject. Imams from the Canadian Muslims' Society are pro, demanding equality of rights with other religions. "The Jews already have these courts, why not us?" asks Mr. Mumtaz Ali. In fact, the Orthodox do practice arbitration by virtue of the 1991 Ontario law, but mostly to settle commercial disputes. For their part, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women rejects "two speed justice," one for Muslims (which would hurt women) and one for the rest of Canadians.

    Homa Arjomand reminds us in this respect that "according to sharia, women are under trusteeship," that "many arrive destitute, dependent on their husbands, without knowledge of their rights. They live in a ghetto and Islamic courts will isolate them even more."

    Jean-Louis Roy, President of Rights and Democracy, also believes that this "viscious" project will affect "the most vulnerable," in short, Muslim women immigrants. He adds: "Everywhere in the world people are fighting to abolish references to religion and here we want to back up on such a principle? There can be no question of having Islamic courts in Canada, of finishing with the concept of equality before the law, of privatizing family law to the benefit of religious authorities, which runs counter to Canada's international obligations with regard to human rights and discrimination against women."

    Some also fear that the Ontario "legal diversion" will take hold in other provinces. In Québec, the minister for international relations, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, was categorical: "Those who want to change our values can go elsewhere." Julius Grey, a lawyer opposed to religious courts, is more nuanced: "There's an enormous difference between allowing reasonable accommodation - permitting the wearing of turban, kirpan, or veil, for example - and creating separate courts."