That a proposal to use the Shari‘ah to arbitrate in Muslim family disputes in the province of Ontario should evoke vehement opposition from a Muslim group--the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW)--has shocked the 700,000-strong Muslim community in Canada. They can understand the opposition of non-Muslims even if they do not like it, but what mystifies Muslims is how any Muslim can oppose such a proposal.
Both the CCMW’s opposition and the Muslim community’s surprise are based on a lack of understanding. The CCMW is an organization comprised mostly of secular women for whom Islam is a matter of personal choice and a label. The Muslims’ bafflement is increased when they consider that proponents of the Shari’ah have pledged to operate within the framework of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Canadian law, yet even this is not acceptable to the CCMW, the self-styled representatives of Muslim women in Canada. They simply refuse to live according to the Shari’ah, and to let others choose to do so.
Concerned about the alarming rise in problems and difficulties among Muslim families in Canada, and the escalating associated court costs, a group of Muslims decided to create a body, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice (IICJ), to mediate in family disputes. Led by one Syed Mumtaz Ali, a retired lawyer, the group announced that it would operate under the Ontario Arbitration Act of 1991. Used by Catholics and Hassidic Jews as well as Ismailis since it came into force 13 years ago, the Arbitration Act has been used successfully to mediate in family disputes in various faith-communities. But when some Muslims announced that they too would use the Act, it provoked strong opposition from the CCMW.
The CCMW argued that applying the Arbitration Act would be detrimental to the interests of Muslim women because they will be coerced by family and community into joining a process without being properly aware of their rights under Canadian law and the Canadian Charter of Rights. Non-Muslim feminists also jumped on the bandwagon, conjuring up images of the Taliban coming to Canada or Saudi law being applied. When challenged to explain why no objections were raised in the case of other faith-communities, the CCMW and other feminist groups expanded their brief and demanded that the entire Arbitration Act be reviewed. The provincial government gave in to the pressure and last June appointed Marion Boyd, a former attorney general, to review the Act and make recommendations to the government by September.
The current anti-Shari’ah rage has much to do with the post-911 Islamophobia that grips much of the western world; it has been boosted by the secular Muslims’ desire to appear modern and “moderate” by condemning everything Islamic; for the same reason they are vocal in support of ‘gay and lesbian rights’ under the pretext of freedom of expression. Such ‘freedom’, however, is not available to Muslims who wish to live in accordance with Islamic law. Many secular “moderates” have seldom set foot inside a mosque, much less prayed there (Toronto alone has more than a hundred mosques), yet they claim that they must wrest control from the “extremists”.
The issue got headlines last June when the IICJ announced that it planned to use the Ontario Arbitration Act to help resolve family disputes. Although participation is completely voluntary, it provoked heated debate, with people’s prejudices coming to the fore. Sally Armstrong, author of Veiled Threat, described the Muslims’ plan to be treated equally under the law as a “human rights catastrophe”. Alia Hogben, president of CCMW, said: “For all of us the word Shari’ah brings out a lot of emotions”; one wonders why. Hogben, the daughter of a former Indian ambassador, insists that no religious community should be above the law when it comes to ensuring that women’s rights are not being usurped. “Very simply we’re living as Canadians and the laws of Canada treat women fairly,” said Hogben. “The laws in the Charter of Rights have the same fundamental notions of social justice, fairness and equality that is compatible with Islamic law and we are quite happy with it and don’t see the need to bring any more laws into place.”
Yet no new laws are being enacted; Muslims simply want to use existing laws. Besides, nobody is obliged to use the arbitration process; it is completely voluntary. Most mosques and Islamic centres have over the years mediated family disputes successfully, without costing the parties a single cent. In Canada lawyers and court costs are exorbitant, and have bankrupted many families without providing satisfactory solutions to either party.
The dispute is not merely between secular and devout Muslims, although opponents of the extension of the Arbitration Act to Muslim family disputes clearly believe that they have found their nirvana in Canada. They seem to be determined not to allow other Muslims to decide for themselves, although they insist on their own right to misinterpret and misrepresent Islam and its principles under the rubric of freedom of thought.
The dispute may also have another angle. Both the CCMW and IICJ emerged from two other organizations: the Council of Muslim Communities of Canada (CMCC) and the Canadian Society of Muslims, a Sufi group. The founders of the two organizations—Moinuddin and Dr Qadeer Baig—though now long dead, were bitter rivals, vying with each other for leadership of the Muslim community. Their conflict came to a head in 1976, when the Canadian Society of Muslims led a campaign against textbooks being used in schools in Ontario. The textbooks contained gross inaccuracies about Islam and Allah’s Messenger (saw). The CMCC had approved these textbooks for use in Ontario schools, and the CSM was furious.
The current dispute, however, is much broader; it reflects an attempt by secular Muslims to arrogate to themselves the right to determine how most Muslims, who still hold Islamic values dear, should conduct their affairs. The secularists despise everything Islamic; they reject virtually all Islamic texts and have little or no contact with the broader Muslim community, the vast majority of whom are still quite conservative on social issues; yet despite their distance the secularists insist that they alone must have the last word on all matters. On what basis they make such a claim is hard to comprehend, apart perhaps from the fact that they receive government funding for most of their activities. It is a safe assumption that, were a referendum to be held among the Muslims in Canada, the overwhelming majority would favour the application of Shari’ah to family disputes.
Proponents of the Arbitration Act are also not without fault. Without doing their homework they got carried away with rhetoric. For instance, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice has not even formulated a format under which the Arbitration Act would apply. Similarly, it has given little thought to how the mediation process will work, apart from stating that the arbitrators will be “qualified”. This betrays sloppy thinking and sloppy procedures. Why announce something with fanfare when the basic groundwork has not been done? And why was no thought given to possible opposition from various groups? True, opposition from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women has shocked most Muslims, but venturing into the sensitive area of applying Islamic law to resolve family disputes should have been preceded by identifying the likely sources of opposition and deciding how best to deal with them. Nor have IICJ spokespeople been articulate on the rare occasions they have appeared on television to debate the issue. A good case can be lost by poor representation.
Instead of being surprised, Muslims should understand the CCMW’s mindset in light of the teachings of the Qur’an: “Allah is the Protector of those who have made their faith-commitment: from the depth of darkness He will lead them into the light. Of those who reject faith, their patrons are the evil ones (taghoot): from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (forever)” (2: 257).
The members of the CCMW are cut from the same cloth as the elitist women whom one finds in countries like Pakistan, where they operate under the label All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). They hold huge functions that are little more than fashion-shows; they talk about women’s rights but are themselves guilty of the worst kinds of abuse. Let us consider just one example, that of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan. She is popular on western lecture-circuits, where she pontificates about the “plight” of women in Muslim societies, although her own family maintains vast estates on which men and women are treated worse than animals. Pakistan’s landed aristocracy maintains private jails while their children go to universities in Oxford,Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. They acquire western degrees, and western accents and manners, but no change occurs in their attitude toward the serfs working on the estates whose outputs fund their luxuries and pleasures. They live physically in Muslim societies but mentally they are in the West; they are misfits in their own societies, leading a schizophrenic existence.
They and their ilk are the ones who feel and express a strong aversion to Islam and its principles. The Muslim community in Canada should continue to do what it has always done: aspire to live according to the principles of Islam, without paying any attention to groups like CCMW. One thing, however, the imams and leaders of mosques and Islamic centres can do is to launch a social boycott of these secular and westernized Muslims. When any of them dies, mosques and Islamic centres should refuse to provide Islamic burial rites. If they are not prepared to live according to Islam, they should not be accorded any help in death. Islam is a deen to be lived; it was not revealed only for the dead.
Similarly, if the provincial government comes up with a new set of rules that discriminates against the Muslims, they must object strongly and refuse to cooperate. When Muslims voluntarily decide to abide by certain rules, it is not the government’s business to interfere. Perhaps it is time for God-fearing Muslims to teach secular Muslims and non-Muslim proponents of “democracy” a thing or two not only about Shari’ah but also about shura. It is time for sincere Muslims to speak out against those irrepresentative groups who claim to speak for Muslims, and expose them for what they really are: a tiny minority that has no roots in the community, despite the noise it makes to suggest otherwise.