Today, with one voice, the members of the National Assembly of Quebec are saying “no” to the introduction, in Quebec and Canada, of so-called Islamic courts. That’s the answer the members wish to give certain groups that are trying to remove Muslims from Canadian and Quebec law.
The demand these groups have put forward led the Attorney General of Ontario to commission Marion Boyd, a former minister responsible for women’s issues, to prepare a report examining the question of Islamic courts in light of the Arbitration Act. The conclusions of this report, submitted on December 20, 2004, are troubling to say the least. The issue here is the application of shari‘a law in a non-Islamic context, which is what these minority groups are pushing for. They are using the Charter of Rights to strike at the very foundations of our democratic institutions. Yet the Canadian Charter is clear: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.”
The victims of shari‘a have a human face, the face of Muslim women. Their strong reaction to the Boyd Report is not surprising. Let us hope that Ontario’s Attorney General, who must now respond to the report, is more receptive to their voice. The introduction in Canada of so-called Islamic courts is not a matter of religious freedom or reasonable accommodation. Muslim Canadians are full-fledged citizens, who enjoy the same rights and have the same obligations as all Canadians. They have the freedom to build mosques and run Islamic schools, some of which are publicly funded. North America’s first mosque, Al Rashid Mosque, was built in Canada, in Edmonton to be precise, in 1938. Quebec’s first mosque, Markaz al Islam Mosque, was established by a bill passed by the National Assembly 40 years ago, in August 1965.
The Islamic community, whose first members arrived in Canada in 1871, has made significant efforts to integrate, despite the stigmatization and stereotyping it has faced. The rising generation of Muslim youth is especially promising: they rank among Canada’s most educated.
But the effort of tens of thousands of Muslims to integrate is jeopardized by an active Islamist minority that is endeavouring to impose its system of values in the name of a particular conception of God. Yet Islam is a lay faith, a religion that has no clergy, no intermediary between God and believers, a religion where imams are simply prayer leaders who are not priests, let alone recognized legal authorities. For several years now, Canada has been the arena of intense struggles for control of the Islamic community. The push to introduce shari‘a law in Canada is part of the same strategy of isolating the Islamic community to subject it to an archaic vision of Islam, a vision whose ideologists, propagandists, financial backers and activists are Islamists.
How can we justify the introduction of shari‘a in Canada when civil society groups in Islamic countries are demanding that it be abolished to end discrimination against women? Implementing shari‘a in Canada is a power grab aimed at undermining one of the cornerstones of our democracy: our justice system. It divides and weakens an Islamic community already under stress as a result of fallout from international events.
Let us look at this demand in context. The idea of setting up what are known as Islamic courts emerged in Canada some 15 years ago, under the aegis of Rabita al-Islamya, the Muslim World League, an organization based in Saudi Arabia. In August 1991, the Muslim World League financed a meeting in Washington attended by imams from the United States and Canada. The Canadian imams came from Montreal, Toronto, Mississauga, London, Edmonton and Vancouver. The theme of this meeting was the development of strategies for introducing shari‘a to Canada and the United States.
Two lines of action were defined. The first was to convince Canadian Muslims to withdraw from the reach of secular law since God is the only sovereign. Arafat Al-Ashi, then head of the Muslim World League in Toronto, said at the time that “no Muslim is worthy of the name unless they can practise this law … Otherwise they are considered nonbelievers.”
The second line of action consisted in lobbying elected representatives and political parties so that they would support the establishment of Islamic courts. The Islamists targeted Canada as the country where they felt their project had the best chance of success because of the constitutional guarantees extended to minorities through charters of rights and multiculturalism legislation. If shari‘a were to be established in Canada, it would serve as a powerful symbol to discourage Islamic countries from modernizing their codes of law. If Aboriginal nations have their own justice system, Arafat Al-Ashi claimed, why shouldn’t Muslims have theirs?
The follow-up committee appointed at the meeting was placed under the leadership of a man of unwavering conviction, a lawyer who once worked at the Ontario Attorney General’s Office and is considered an expert in matters of Charter law and the rights of Canadians. I’m referring to Syed Mumtaz Ali, also president of the Canadian Society of Muslims.
In September 1991, he told a Toronto journalist, “Divorce is a divine right accorded to the husband. In Islam, marriage is a civil contract. Once the marriage is dissolved, that contract is terminated, and the husband is no longer responsible for his spouse.” On the question of imams who, under Canadian law, have the authority to perform marriages and who stretch this authority to include granting divorces, Syed Mumtaz Ali stated that he saw no problem there and argued, “Just as you have accepted religious marriages, accept religious divorces.”
When news of this initiative reached the community, the response was immediate. Finding themselves up against a wall of opposition, the promoters of the project beat a strategic retreat and kept a low profile for some 15 years before the same Syed Mumtaz Ali came back to haunt the Muslim community in the fall of 2003.
All the wiser from his experience, he is determined this time round not to repeat past mistakes. He carefully and thoroughly set about playing down the impact of these courts. No efforts are spared to avoid shocking the public in any way, even to the extent of avoiding the term shari‘a. Centre stage is given to Muslim women singing the praises of the Islamist version of family mediation. Rabbinic courts are held up as evidence of purported discrimination against Muslims. And the issue of polygamy, which is commonly practised in Canada, has conveniently been swept under the carpet.
Syed Mumtaz Ali, who now heads the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice, has found a loophole in Ontario’s Arbitration Act and has cunningly used it to claim nothing less than the introduction in Canada of so-called Islamic courts. And with Islamic courts comes shari‘a, a legal system developed between the eighth and 12th centuries to regulate civil, penal, criminal and international matters.
Several codes of law have been grafted onto this rootstock so that there are now as many law systems based on the shari‘a as there are Islamic countries. Which system will prevail in Quebec and Canada? The same one as in Pakistan where, in the name of shari‘a, a rape victim must produce four male witnesses to corroborate that she was indeed raped, or else she will be flogged? The same one as in Nigeria where, in the name of shari‘a, Muslim women have been stoned to death for having sex outside of marriage? The same one as in Sudan where, in the name of shari‘a, the hands and legs of hundreds of people have been cut off, supposedly to prevent robbery? The same one as in Iran where, in the name of shari‘a, men can have as many women as they want through Jawaz al-Mutaa or pleasure marriages? Or the same one as in Saudi Arabia where, in the name of shari‘a, women are not allowed to drive their own cars?
Another crucial question: what is the legal authority, recognized by the Islamic community as a whole, that will be responsible for applying shari‘a in Canada? The market is open and very lucrative. One thing is sure: in Islam, there are five authorized schools of law, four Sunni and one Shiite. Which will be accredited in Canada?
Shrewd strategists that they are, Syed Mumtaz Ali and the Islamist groups that support him like to play down their demand and present it as a simple matter of family mediation. If that were the case, why create courts, when family mediation in Islam is neither a legal nor an institutional matter? It has, for centuries, been conducted within the family circle. Why judicialize family mediation in a religion that does not provide for it? What interests are at stake here?
The truth is that in Canada, home of the Charter of Rights, repudiation of a wife and polygamy are currently practised behind the backs of the legal authorities. What the courts the Islamists are demanding will do is institutionalize these practices, which are against our laws. For example, an imam who has the authority to perform marriages under Canadian law must know that this delegated power does not give him the authority to grant divorces. These practices must be stopped, not encouraged.
Just because a supposedly religious practice exists within a community, that doesn’t mean it should be recognized and sanctioned by our justice system, a system that is admittedly far from perfect but is nonetheless open to improvement. On the contrary, it is our duty to protect the most vulnerable among us, the victims of arbitrary decisions and abuse. This is where we must fight, for there is more involved here than women’s issues or issues of concern to the Islamic community. The very foundations of our democracy are at stake and we must protect them. Allowing shari‘a in Quebec and in Canada would be tantamount to calling into question all the headway we have made collectively over the last 50 years to promote equality, justice and human rights.
By loudly and clearly stating its opposition to the application of shari‘a law in Quebec and Canada, the National Assembly is making history and showing leadership of a kind that should be emulated by other legislatures, in Canada and throughout the Western world.
A historic mistake in Quebec
by Mohamed Nekili
Statements made by Quebec Liberal MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin are troubling to say the least. It was Houda-Pepin who in March of this year invited a number of parliamentarians to a presentation at the National Assembly in relation to Islamic shari‘a law and the Arbitration Act in Ontario.
MNA Houda-Pepin also reportedly “warned that the public should make an effort to get to know those in the community who are lobbying for application of shari‘a,” and that “one of the strengths of Islamists is that they know you very well. They know our history, they know our culture, they know our justice system, the Charter of Rights.”1
Her statements suggest that all Muslim citizens who express their values in the public domain are “Islamists,” and according to her definition they are aliens, suspects or conspirators who nefariously exploit their knowledge of Canadian history, culture, the justice system and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Houda-Pepin’s assertions are simply unacceptable and irresponsible, and will unfortunately increase the level of public suspicion toward a community already largely distrusted after the events of 9/11. Also, refusing Muslims the right to avail themselves of existing legal resources within Canadian arbitration laws is blatantly discriminatory.
Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, Quebec Minister of International Relations, went even further along this dangerous path, suggesting “Quebec should refuse immigrants who believe the Islamic system should be applied.”2
Such statements from a government minister of her stature not only question the existing citizenship of Canadian Muslims who are in favour of Islamic arbitration; they are even more troubling in their implications for new Muslim immigrants who could face discrimination based on unfounded claims that an opinion in favour of Islamic arbitration in Ontario contradicts the Quebec Civil Code.
Unfortunately, these unfounded statements have already made their way to a motion unanimously approved by the National Assembly on Thursday, May 26, 2005, and presented by Fatima Houda-Pepin, along with MNAs from opposition parties, to ban Islamic tribunals from Quebec – and all of Canada. Worse still, the motion was passively adopted without debate and is to be sent to all Canadian provincial parliaments.
The urgent responsibility now lies with the Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) to clarify the statements of MNA Houda-Pepin and minister Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, indicating to what extent they reflect (or hopefully, do not reflect) the official party position.
And not only should the PLQ officially distance itself from these Islamophobic and irresponsible statements; it should also facilitate a presentation to Quebec parliamentarians clarifying the position of Muslim citizens who are in favour of Islamic arbitration in Canada. And finally, it should establish mechanisms to prevent similar incidents in the future.
It is regrettable that this motion was based on false allegations that Muslim Quebecers have initiated formal or informal procedures in relation to family mediation or arbitration, and that the focus of Houda-Pepin’s original motion was not on faith-based arbitration in general, but rather on Muslims and shari‘a only.
This all makes one wonder why the MNAs of other parties did not trouble themselves to question the authenticity of MNA Houda-Pepin’s claims and instead let themselves become passively drawn into a historic political mistake that openly discriminates against Muslim Quebecers and Muslim Canadians. Why were no voices raised to request further studies and consultation as happened for Ontario through Marion Boyd’s report?
This disastrous National Assembly motion serves only to annihilate so much of the effort expended by Muslim organizations during the past decade to encourage Muslims of this country to exercise their full citizenship. It is sad to say that this motion has damaged the trust Muslim Quebecers have always invested in their political representatives.
Fatima Houda-Pepin is the Liberal member of the Quebec National Assembly for La Pinière. This is an edited version of an address she delivered in the National Assembly on May 26, 2005, in support of a motion she introduced “to oppose the establishment in Quebec and in Canada of so-called Islamic courts.” The motion was adopted unanimously.
1 Montreal Gazette, March 11, 2005.