Canada is giving sharia law a trial run

Claude Adams

Koranic judgments subject to appeal, but repression is feared

The front-page photo of the Asian Pacific Post was intended to frighten. It showed a burqa-clad woman, eyes distraught, hands clutched in supplication. The headline: 'Islamic courts for B.C.?'

Inside, the Vancouver weekly answered its own provocative question: sharia, the 'law' that in its extreme form mandates amputating the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers to death, may soon be a fact of life in Canada

It is the country's latest adventure in multiculturalism. The leaders - all men - of Canada's 600,000 Muslims are pushing hard to set up sharia tribunals. They would have the authority to intervene in non-criminal matters such as divorce, child custody, property and inheritance. The hearings would be behind closed doors. The 'judges' would likely include the local imam.

Instead of Canadian statute books, the tribunals would refer to 1,300-year-old laws inspired by the Koran. Appearance before the tribunals would be voluntary, and any decision could be appealed to Canadian courts.

But there's a catch: some Islamic leaders say that if you're a 'good Muslim', you won't argue with a tribunal's decision.

Ontario, Canada's biggest province, has already approved the idea as a cost-saving measure.

'People can agree to resolve disputes in any way acceptable,' said a spokesman for the Ontario attorney-general.

Many Canadians, including many Muslims, feel it to be a terrible idea. Apart from subverting the concept of the separation of religion and state, critics say sharia will introduce a parallel rule of law that is male-dominated.

Freelance journalist Natasha Fatah tells of a Pakistani friend whose father died of cancer. Even though she was the eldest sibling and assumed most of the parental responsibilities, her father's will left everything, including jewellery and the family business, to her younger brother.

Under some interpretations of sharia law, this is perfectly correct. In Canada, it is abhorrent. But how many Muslim Canadian women would dare defy an imam and their community?

There are other chilling stories, like the Pakistani woman who worked for a Canadian bank and gave all her salary to her husband. She had to beg for money, and when she decided to keep C$50 (HK$289) a month for herself, her husband said no. He had sharia on his side.

The women most at risk are young immigrants from North Africa or the Middle East who were raised in a culture of subjugation, say critics like Homa Arjomand.

'In a straight disagreement between a husband and wife,' she said in an interview with The Toronto Star, 'the husband's testimony will prevail. That is sharia.' Even worse, Ms Arjomand said, is the forced marriage of girls as young as 14 to older men - a practice she says is tolerated under Islamic law.

Canadian officials say there is little to worry about because safeguards would be put in place: the tribunals would not consider criminal matters, corporal punishment would not be allowed, and all rulings could be appealed to regular courts. They also point out a strict reading of the Koran calls for full equality of women.

But critics say it is not the Koran they are worried about but the interpretation certain clerics put on it and the Canadian government, in the name of multiculturalism, will be reluctant to interfere.