In 1991, the Canadian province of Ontario passed what seemed at the time to be an enlightened, multicultural piece of legislation. Called the Arbitration Act, it stipulates that if two parties agree to engage a commercial, religious, or other arbitrator to settle a civil dispute, the provincial authorities will then enforce the verdict, so long as it is in accord with Canadian law.
"People can use any arbitrator they want and can use a religious framework if it is mutually acceptable," notes Brendan Crawley, spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General. "If the award is not compatible with Canadian law, then the court will not enforce it. You can't agree to violate Canadian law."
Over the years, Jews, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites, and aboriginals, among others, made use of arbitration to settle family law questions without using Ontario's court system. The system quietly worked. "If there have been any problems flowing from any rabbinical court decisions, I'm not aware of them," observed the Ontario region chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Joel Richler.
Then, in October 2003, an organization called the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice proposed the creation of Muslim Arbitration Boards (internally, it used Islamic terminology for these, Darul-Qada). As explained by the institute's founder, Syed Mumtaz Ali, the boards, arbitrating on the basis of Islamic law, the Sharia, would permit a Muslim to live according to Islam's "complete code of life."
A first news article on this initiative came out in November 2003; within days, prompted by WorldNetDaily.com ("Canada prepares to enforce Islamic law"), a huge dispute got going. A hitherto obscure Ontario provision prompted a sharp national debate and even street rallies in twelve Canadian and European cities.
Interestingly, the main opposition came from Muslim women's groups, who feared that ignorant, isolated females would submit to the inescapably misogynistic Sharia, a law code that permits parents to marry off pre-pubescent girls, men to marry multiple women, husbands alone to divorce, fathers automatically to win custody of children over certain ages, and sons to inherit more than daughters.
The anti-Sharia campaign succeeded. On Sep. 11 – after almost two years of public debate – the premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, held that religious-based arbitrations "threaten our common ground." He announced that "There will be no Sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians."
His decision means that faith-based arbitration can continue to operate, as it did long before 1991, but the government will no longer enforce its verdicts.
Anti-Sharia forces were of course jubilant. "That was the best news I have ever heard for the past five years," said Homa Arjomand. "We're still in disbelief. But it's such good news. It's remarkable," commented Nuzhat Jafri. "I'm just thrilled!" reacted Tarek Fatah (before he began receiving death threats).
McGuinty's decision has a catch, however. Acting on the correct premise that Islam must be treated the same as other religions, he determined that if Muslims cannot enjoy state enforcement of faith-based arbitration, neither can anyone else. Therefore, McGuinty said, his government would "as soon as possible" introduce legislation to repeal the Arbitration Act of 1991.
This side-effect prompted a pained reaction from those who would lose state enforcement of their arbitration decisions. Richler denounced it as a "knee-jerk reaction against the Sharia issue." Rabbi Reuben Poupko of Montreal added, sadly, "the Ontario government felt compelled to throw the baby with the bath water."
That Orthodox Jews and others might lose out points to an emerging pattern, whereby efforts to integrate Muslims into the West upset a benign status quo. Other recent examples:
- French nuns for the first time must take off their cowls for identity card or passport pictures because of anti-hijab legislation. Likewise, French schoolchildren may not wear crosses or Stars of David to class.
- Large populations – British underground riders, American airport passengers, Russian theater-goers – must undergo extensive security checks, thanks to Muslim terrorists.
- Danes marrying foreigners face extensive restrictions to bring them into Denmark because of immigration abuses (the "human visa" problem) involving Muslims.
- Santas, Nativity plays, Christmas carols, and Bibles are banned in Western countries so as not to offend Muslim sensitivities.
Unremarked upon by most Westerners, Islam's presence has started to change their way of life.
For more examples of banned items, see "Islam Dispatches Santa, the Bible, and Winnie the Pooh."
Oct. 31, 2005 update: Today's Ottawa Citizen reports that McGuinty was in sync with Canadian opinion when he ended government enforcement of religious arbitration:
Sixty-three per cent of Canadians oppose giving any religious community the right to use faith-based arbitration to settle divorce, custody, inheritance and other family disputes, according to the survey conducted for the Centre for Research and Information on Canada. Asked specifically if the Muslim community should be allowed to use faith-based arbitration, the same percentage of Canadians -- 63 per cent—said no, the survey said.
Carsten Quell, director of research for the centre, said the findings suggest anti-Muslim sentiment was not behind the loud opposition in Ontario to allowing Shariah courts to arbitrate family law. "It wasn't singling out a particular community," Mr. Quell said. "We found that people were generally opposed to do it for any community. So, that kind of explains the opposition to granting the Muslim community that right."