Madrid newspaper El Pais reports on Sharia in Canada: "The Limits of Multiculturalism"
LOS LÍMITES DEL MULTICULTURALISMO [The limits to Multiculturalism]
La 'sharía' desafía el modelo de Canadá
[Sharia challenges the Canadian Model]
El intento de aplicación de la ley islámica en
la provincia de Ontario divide a los musulmanes
[Muslims are divided by the intent to apply
Islamic Law in the province of Ontario]
By JOSÉ MANUEL CALVO
Diario EL PAÍS, Madrid
Last September the government of the province of Ontario, the one with the
largest number of inhabitants in Canada, cut short a controversy that had
been going on for two years: family arbitration will not be allowed- spousal
separations, child custody, inheritance- based on Islamic law or sharia..
The topic had divided the Canadian Muslim Community, 700,000 people strong,
into those who thought that the measure was a mistake based on a"fear of
Islam" and those that considered that sharia was defying the countries
Constitution and was an assault against the rights of women. The Canadian
controversy poses the limits of multiculturalism and serves as a precedent
In Canada (32.3 million inhabitants) there are almost 700,000 Muslims. At
two in the afternoon, groups of young people wearing white caps are chatting
on the large sidewalk of Danforth street, near Toronto city centre. They
have left the prayer sooner than the grandfathers who are sporting beards,
Kaftans and worn out jackets and who are taking their time wearing their
shoes. One arrives at the office of the Mufti of the Madina Masjid- the
mosque of Medina- by simply asking.
Abdullah Mangera was born in India 27 years ago and was trained until 15 in
Great Britain and the USA. He invites us to enter while he is talking on the
phone to someone that wants to help build the new mosque, a million dollar
project. Abdullah apologizes for not offering anything, it is Ramadan. And,
afterwards, he apologizes "for not being very up to date in political
issues", because he believes that the decision that there should not be
family arbitrations " has been a political one ".
Last September 11, Dalton McGuinty, first minister of the province of
Ontario, ended a controversy that had been dragging on for almost two years:
there would not be sharia tribunals. There would not be either, said
McGuinty, arbitration for Jews and Christians, a system that was set in
motion in 1991 to relieve judicial backlog and resolve family
conflicts-separations, custody of children, inheritance- outside tribunals.
* "I'm very happy. We have fought a lot, almost 24 hours a day", says
Homa Arjomand, coordinator of the International Campaign against Sharia in
* "It would have been a catastrophe: the first privatization of the
judicial system in the world", assures the Muslim activist Tarek Fatah.
* "It is not a step in the right direction, it's a step backwards",
laments Wahida Valiante, vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
The Arbitration Law of 1991 was a victory for multiculturalism, the system
adopted by Canada in 1971 to counter Quebec Nationalism and better integrate
For Homa Arjomand, the debate over sharia questions the model. "I came to
Canada because of its multiculturalism, but now I think it must be
demolished. It fulfilled its objectives, it is now a barrier because it
respects cultures and beliefs more than it respects individuals. A 13 year
old girl can be taken out of school to marry her off because the culture she
lives in allows it".
In Canada (32.3 million inhabitants) there are almost700,000 Muslims. The
muftis and Imams intervene in conflict mediation and will keep on doing so.
What unleashed the debate was the lawyer Mumtaz Ali's initiative to start
the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice to intervene in arbitration. Contrary
to arbitrations their agreements have a legal endorsement.
A report from the former attorney general Marion Boyd accepted the
initiatives, although with control and protection mechanisms that sharia
opponents considered insufficient and as proof quoted cases that Homa
Arjomand 's clients denounce. " He kept my pictures, my dowry, the jewels
and my Iranian ID card, he gives me no money for the children", complained
E. "I found out that he remarried in Pakistan and he wanted money to grant
me talaq" laments S. who says that, at the mosque, she was threatened " that
the community will break off with me and my family if I do not meet his
Wahida Valiante says that "in places like Iran or Pakistan there are acts of
injustice with sharia, but it wasn't about bringing it to Canada, which has
its Charter of Rights, its tribunals...It was an excuse to scare people. It
was about bringing some sort of control to religious arbitration, which was
not there". And adds that one must not confuse the Koran with" those imams
that open their mouths and say horrors like the one in Spain that said that
women could be beaten. Oh, my God, that is not in the Koran. What the Koran
says is that when there is a conflict between a husband and a wife they
should talk. If that doesn't work, they have to find people that would
represent them and act as mediators. If that doesn't help they must
Anver Emon, professor of Islamic law, explains: In Canada there is a Charter
of Rights and Freedoms and a multicultural system and religious freedom. Its
obvious that Islamic law treats differently men and women. Is there room in
the Charter to accommodate all this? I belief that yes, if a mechanism is
created for all religious arbitrations and if those who want to arbitrate
Emon recognizes that one problem remains exposed: "What is the role of the
State? If it wants to protect citizens it must eliminate the autonomy of
cultural groups, but if multiculturalism is to be guaranteed, a certain
level of autonomy is to be given". Solution?." The problem is to be served
as it is done in economy: with liberty, but with State regulations for
fundamental matters. Multiculturalism can work, but the State must guaranty
that individual rights are respected."
The office of the mufti has various shelves with sacred books and a piece of
furniture with files and binders (divorce, families, charities). A big canon
NP6550 photocopy machine, that is to be found in no other office, is turning
yellow under a picture of Jerusalem viewed from Mont Olives. Abdullah
strokes his beard and speaks softly above the whisper of the prayers. "There
was no need for the clamour raised. There is no contradiction between the
Canadian legal system and the sharia. I am not aware of all the details of
Canadian laws, but I know they are based on justice, like sharia. How would
there have been a contradiction? "It's an attempt against women"
-Homa Arjomand spearheads the movement against sharia. She was born in Iran
52 years ago, escaped repression in 1989 on a horse with her two children,
one and six years old. Social assistant in Toronto, Homa believes Islamism
wants to "interfere with the justice system of countries and attempt against
the rights of women and children". And she has a long list of cases: "I have
just learned of a 14 year old that is about to get married to get married to
her cousin, a marriage agreed on when she was born. What kind of equality is
that? What sort of life is this woman going to have?".
-Tarek Fatah is 56 and was born in Pakistan. He says that his two daughters
are sushi, because" I am Sunni and my wife is Shia". Sharia was stopped
because we the Muslims said that it was a challenge to the Constitution and
that it would put us in a ghetto", says the founder of Muslim Canadian
Congress, that believes that "multiculturalism is the new tribalism, the
multi-segregation". Fatah who presents Muslim Chronicles on television says
that "Islamism, well aware of Canadian tolerance, wanted to introduce sharia
not to resolve family conflicts with religion, but to validate its agenda in
a democratic society".
"Religion is not oppression" .
-Wahida Valiante, vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress is 50. She
arrived to Canada in 1961 from Great Britain were her parents lived. She
married an Italian converted to Islam, one of her children is neurosurgeon
and the other is consultant. "The idea that sharia was coming to Canada was
an excuse, a propaganda manoeuvre to scare people". The plan was to
introduce some sort of control in religious arbitration. We have lost the
opportunity; it could have been a model for Europe and for the rest of the
world". Valiante, a psychotherapist, assures that "religion has not been nor
is an element of oppression".
-Anver Emon, 34 years old and professor of Islamic Law in Toronto was born
in California from parents who had immigrated from India. He believes that
it was a mistake to ban sharia in Ontario and that there is a confusion
between "stupid husbands and incompetent imams" and Islamic Law. The problem
lays within those "that have poorly studied it in Pakistan, Middle East or
Maghreb; they learn how to lead prayers and arbitrate disputes. And what do
they do? they go to Spain or Canada and lead communities". Instead of
focusing on how to better train imams, the debate was centered on" the fear
of Islam, the green danger".