September 16, 2005
Sharia ban is fair, and not racist
By ROSIE DIMANNO
The Toronto Star
The time has come for Canadians to be weaned off the teat of multiculturalism as a primary source of sustenance and self-identity. Surely, in the 21st century, we are more than the sum total of our diverse parts and hyphenated definitions.
What once bound us together in a less self-assured era — the appealing dynamics of ethnic and cultural distinctions undiluted by melting pot nationalism — served its purpose well for several decades, since first advocated as a cementing ideology by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
But somewhere along the line, perhaps when human rights tribunals and clumsily codified diversity legislation began to illogically skew the social balance, asserting minority rights over majority concepts, the whole thing began to unravel.
There is something wrong when Premier Dalton McGuinty is portrayed, at least by implication, as racist for asserting that secular courts cannot be used to uphold decisions on family law made through faith-based arbitration.
There is something amiss when religious leaders take constitutional umbrage over the paramount authority of Canadian jurisprudence on matters in which they presume to have moral authority.
There is something absurd if not outright repugnant about labelling as “Islamaphobic” — a currently trendy neologism with no precise definition but tons of attitude — women who have spent their lives promoting gender equality, yet now find themselves castigated, in the most paternalistic language, for daring to champion the secular over the infantilizing religious.
In this hypersensitive era, when few dare speak obvious truths lest they be hounded by the righteous and the grievance-subsumed, McGuinty made the only choice possible to halt the legal enshrinement of sharia law in family arbitration matters — retroactively gutting the Arbitration Act that has, for the past 13 years, permitted faith-based mediation in Ontario by other religious denominations.
It was the NDP — twisting itself into an ideological pretzel and sacrificing basic Canadian values on the altar of religious institutional rights — that gave us that little piece of legislation.
It’s difficult to say, probably because none of us investigated the practice properly in all this time, whether women, in particular, were getting a fair shake out of their rabbis and priests in matters related to divorce, custody, child support, property settlement and inheritance. Presumably, only those who take their faith ultra seriously, the orthodox, would seek arbitration from these Catholic tribunals and rabbinical courts in the first place. And if they respect those agencies, they would abide by their decisions.
In practice, from what I’ve been able to determine, the numbers of such formally arbitrated cases are quite small. The Catholic Archdiocese in Toronto, for example, limits quasi-judicial authority, as it existed under the Arbitration Act, to annulment requests. But an annulment doesn’t replace civil divorce, which is still required to dismantle a marriage. I know of no instances where the Church has settled, say, custodial matters.
In that context, it is perhaps unfair for Catholic tribunals and rabbinical courts to have the rug pulled out from under them in order for the government to put an ecumenical face on what was clearly aimed at circumscribing Islamic authority.
McGuinty’s solution is fair if disingenuous. He can’t be accused of a cultural bias against Muslims. And there is no vilifying bias against Muslims in Canada because such a thing won’t be tolerated, not in our institutions and not in our communities. But there was a legitimate fear that fundamentalist practices as codified in sharia law — even more worrisomely, as interpreted by individual imams — would leave women vulnerable to judgments founded on religious texts that clash with Canadian law and values.
There is nothing to prevent Muslim women, or people of any faith, to continue seeking mediation from religious authorities. Surely, it is well within the purview of such authorities to give counsel and advice to the faithful. The spiritual and the moral remain realms of temporal consultation. But this province couldn’t put its faith in the fallback protections afforded by civil courts, which would still have maintained the right to overrule decisions rendered under sharia law, had the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice been successful in seeking state sanction for Islamic tribunals.
The most vulnerable individuals — women accustomed to patriarchal dictates and their children — would likely find it extremely difficult to assert their civil rights, particularly if they are new to this country, unfamiliar with our legal system, and living within an ethnic cocoon, as is the case for many recent immigrants. This might seem, as proponents of sharia law (including some Muslim women) claim, an intrinsically paternalistic view, as if Muslim women are incapable of grasping their own circumstances and require the apparatus of the state to defend them. But the reality is that, for so many women, especially immigrant women who lead insular lives, they do not share, are often not permitted to share, in the values and rights so vital to our society.
I saw this a generation ago in the constituency I know best — Catholic women in Italian families, allowed precious little choice by the domineering, if however well-intentioned, men in their lives.
Islam may be the answer for more than a billion people on this Earth and I in no way wish to diminish the richness of a majestic faith that expresses itself in every facet of a person’s daily life. It is, or thus it seems to me, a religion of surrendering to intensely codified conduct. Perhaps this is what makes it so attractive and why it is the world’s fastest growing faith. It’s not my place to judge.
But there are applications of that faith, as determined by sharia law, that have no formalized place in Canadian society. That much we do have the collective right to judge, without being called racist.