I'm quoting at length from the story in today's Toronto Star because many US readers are likely not up on this.
In a surprise announcement that caught both supporters and opponents of sharia law off guard, Premier Dalton McGuinty says he will move quickly to ban all religious arbitration in the province.Since I started wmtc, whenever US wingnuts want to bad-mouth my decision to move to Canada, they bring up sharia. Of course, these are the same people who claim I will be forced to speak French, and subject to arrest - via Gestapo-like middle-of-the-night raids - if I disparage the Queen. So it's not like I put much stock in what the Big Soccer crew has to say. But it's clear that Fox News has been feeding them lies about the compulsory use of sharia courts in Canada.
McGuinty made the announcement in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press yesterday after months of debate and controversy surrounding use of Islamic sharia law in family arbitration.
"I've come to the conclusion that the debate has gone on long enough," the premier told the news agency.
"There will be no sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."
The announcement prompted tears of joy and cartwheels among opponents of sharia who say they suffered constant harassment, including verbal taunts, physical attacks and even death threats by fundamentalist Muslims because of their stance.
"I'm just thrilled! It validates what we've been saying. It's a big victory for separation of religion and state and a huge defeat for Islamic fundamentalism," said Tarek Fatah, of the Muslim Canadian Congress, adding the group feared McGuinty would allow sharia after receiving a report recommending it by former NDP attorney-general Marion Boyd.
"I want to congratulate the premier for taking such a bold and courageous decision. It restores my faith in politicians," said Fatah.
Boyd could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Proponents of sharia expressed shock and disappointment at what they call McGuinty's "flip-flop" on the issue, and the fact that he went against the recommendations of Boyd's report.
"He is misguided and will alienate many people of faith in this province," said Mohammed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
"He obviously caved in to political pressure from a minority with a loud voice. Not only will it cost him at the polls in the next election, the problem won't go away ... Arbitration will continue anyway, because it is part of our social fabric."
"If McGuinty is worried about women abuse," Elmasry said, "then recognizing and regulating arbitration is much better than the ad hoc procedure that is currently happening because, when you regulate it, there is transparency and accountability."
A representative from Ontario's Jewish community also expressed surprise at McGuinty's decision.
"We're stunned," said Joel Richler, Ontario region chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
"At the very least, we would have thought the government would have consulted with us before taking away what we've had for so many years."
Richler said the current system -- in place since 1992 -- has worked well and he saw no reason for it to be changed for either his or other religious communities.
. . .
"We're still in disbelief. But it's such good news. It's remarkable. We're very happy because it's been a difficult fight. We got a lot of flak from other Muslims who called us Islamaphobic," said Nuzhat Jafri, a spokeswoman for the group.
"It was way too complicated for the government to allow faith-based arbitration. Most faiths, whether we like it or not, are not fair to women because they are based on a patriarchal tradition."
Banning all religious arbitration is an "equitable move," Jafri added. "To single out Muslims would have been discriminatory."
Just hours before McGuinty's announcement, writer June Callwood, actress Shirley Douglas and other prominent Canadian women had, as a group, issued an open letter to him on behalf of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition.
Elated, Callwood and Douglas were full of praise for McGuinty.
"Wow, that's brilliant!" said Callwood. "So many women and a lot of men, too, felt this (sharia) was going to be a disaster. To do it in one big stroke is wonderful. It provides consistency."
McGuinty's decision "will be cheered around the world," said Callwood. Douglas was equally effusive. "It's terrific. Dalton McGuinty has made a move he will be proud of for a long time."
Expanding legal use of sharia would have been a "huge step backward for women ... being dictated to by men and elders of the (faith) ... this is a recipe for deep trouble for women in those communities ... why terrorize people with that kind of insecurity? I'm very pleased he's discontinuing the others as well. Religion has no place in law."
Under the 1991 Arbitration Act, sharia law is already legal in the province so long as both parties agree to its use and the arbitrators' decisions do not violate Canadian law. Aboriginal, Christian and Jewish tribunals have operating similarly under the act for the past 14 years.
This is an interesting issue, since it brings into conflict two important principles: religious freedom vs. equal rights for women. For me the conflict is resolved with another basic tenet. In a pluralistic society, no subculture's customs can take precedent over the principles of the larger society, when it comes to individual rights.
Some years back, a judge in New York City acquitted an immigrant for attacking (and nearly killing) his wife with a hammer, because - said the judge - harsh discipline of women was acceptable in the man's original culture. Excuse me??? (There was a huge outcry, of course.)
All sorts of repugnant behavior has been excused by "cultural standards", the most egregious being slavery, and then Jim Crow, which white Southerners called "our way of life". So for me, it comes down to this: each of us is free to practice our religion, but if that religion makes someone else a second-class citizen, it should be curbed.
This is the principle invoked when parents of US Christian Scientists are forced to have their children treated by conventional medical doctors. Some see this as an unconstitutional curb on religious freedom. I see it as a defense of that child's individual rights. Practice your own religion as you see fit, but don't threaten someone else's well-being.
Religious courts are often used to curtail the rights of women. The rights of a girl born into a Canadian Muslim family have to be the same as the rights of one born into any other Canadian family.
One argument in favor of religious courts is that, under Canadian law, participation in sharia must be voluntary. This seems disingenuous. Voluntary for whom? If a woman is accused of some trespass against fundamentalist mores, is she given the right to not be judged by those standards?
Then there's the issue of the religious courts used by Orthodox Jews. If sharia is banned, those courts must also be illegal. And of course there's the fact that religious courts will still be used, whether or not they have legal binding status. That may be so, but it's not an argument to allow them.
I see this as a victory for basic equality. Your thoughts?