A group called the Canadian Society of Muslims is establishing the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice (ICJ) to apply the legal code called Shariah, based on the Koran, to settle disputes over property, inheritance, marriage and divorce, reported the New York Times on Wednesday. While some maintain that Canadians should welcome and support Shariah arbitration because it promotes religious freedom, others—Christians, non-Christians, and Muslims, alike—are left with questions and fears for what Shariah arbitration could bring to Canadians.
The ICJ is acting under an Ontario provincial law passed in 1991 that gave religious authorities the power to arbitrate civil matters as long as the people seeking arbitration do so voluntarily and are free to appeal those decisions in Canadian courts.
Janet Buckingham, director of law and public policy and general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Center for Religious Freedom in Ottawa, explained how it works:
Two parties agree to arbitration and may select the arbitrator of their choice to decide the dispute—and now the options include the ICJ, Ontario’s Muslim arbitration tribunal. A higher court will only hear ruling appeals on the narrow issue of whether a ruling conflicts with Ontario law. If it does not, it is enforceable as a court order.
“Normally, if you have a trial and a court decision, you can appeal on a broader range of issues,” for example, whether the decision is right, Buckingham told World Pulse Magazine. “Whether you have arbitration, you can not actually appeal because you agreed to arbitration that is binding.”
Ontario’s courts must uphold decisions by this and other government-recognized arbitration tribunals.
Under the law, even Jews and Christians have settled a relatively narrow number of issues without going through the courts. Rabbis have granted religious divorces, decided on matters relating to kosher dietary laws and arbitrated business disputes. Catholic couples have gone to priests to annul marriages, while churches of various dominations have settled disputes related to inappropriate behavior of ministers and monetary disagreements within and between parishes.
Muslim arbitrators have not made a single public decision yet, but Canada would presumably never allow the stoning of adulterous women or cutting off the hand of a thief, both allowable forms of punishment in some Muslim societies under an extreme variation of Shariah.
In other Western democracies, Shariah is not generally accepted, and some Canadian Muslim women - who say Muslim law is already applied behind closed doors - say efforts to apply it openly in Canada's most populous province would represent a dangerous precedent.
In Buckingham’s opinion, the ICJ is “the first step in a larger agenda.”
“These initiatives should be watched closely as they could have negative implications, particularly for Muslims who convert to Christianity,” Buckingham said.
Buckingham noted that many Canadian Christians had immediate concerns about the ICJ because the Shariah law is notorious in Islamic countries for being dramatic and barbaric. “But the ICJ has very limited application and is totally voluntary,” she said. “Christians should monitor the development of the ICJ to ensure there are no abuses.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Kendel, the Australia-based principal researcher and writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission, fears the worst from Shariah’s introduction into Canada. “Not all [religious] traditions are honorable, and some are even seriously abusive and violent and destructive,” she said.
Kendel noted that Muslims who have fled west to escape Shariah oppression are finding it is following closely behind.