How do you solve the problem of sharia?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 10 2004 5:55 PM

How Do You Solve the Problem of Sharia?

Canada grapples with the boundaries of legal multiculturalism.

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But Canadian feminists argue that there is no such thing as purely voluntary arbitration. They insist that isolated immigrant women with limited English are coerced into appearing before sharia panels and never advised of their rights. Refusal to abide by the dictates of these panels results in being shunned in the Muslim community. Supporters of the panels, including B'nai Brith, say this problem can be easily solved by educating women about their rights under the law and enacting protections and safeguards into the arbitration process, including female arbitrators and formal records.

This raises another objection to sharia: Unlike other forms of religious law, there is little consensus on any standardized interpretation. It's hard to advise women about their rights under a set of rules that are always subject to reinterpretation. Inadvertently setting his cause back a few steps, Mohammed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress—another group endorsing sharia in Ontario—recently claimed that: "There are only a handful of scholars in Canada who are fully trained in interpreting and applying Sharia law—and perhaps as few as one." All of which makes the sharia panels sound less like a court than a Magic Eight Ball. Elmasry confirmed that point when he added cheerfully that: "The arbitrators use gut feeling, they use common sense, and in many cases they are successful."

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Despite this protest, it is hard to distinguish sharia law as uniquely more sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic than other religions. The brutal truth is that there are sexist and homophobic aspects to most religious law—including Orthodox Jewish and Christian law. (Indeed, some Orthodox Jewish women have used this period of review to question the appropriateness of grafting Jewish law onto the Ontario civil laws in the first place.)

Certainly anyone can waive the right to have a court settle a civil dispute, and religious Canadians have every right to submit privately to tribunals of any religious stripe to mediate their differences. The question is whether the state should be putting its imprimatur on these negotiated agreements.

This Canadian fondness for multiculturalism at any cost stands in stark contrast to the French approach to religious diversity. Last week, the French government began enforcing its controversial new ban on the wearing of overtly religious symbols—Muslim headscarves, large crosses, yarmulkes—in public schools. French democracy now means that everyone must subordinate their religious differences to their French citizenship, whereas Canadian multiculturalism means the civil law must bend and bend again to accommodate religious differences—even where those religious differences violate the spirit of Canadian equality. Somehow, the Canadians are prepared to sell the farm, while the French will settle for shooting all the animals.

When an official government policy of diversity and tolerance gives its official thumbs up to any legal system—Jewish, Muslim, or Martian—fraught with judgment and intolerance, the consequence is a legal hall of mirrors: A system of laws equally protecting the rights of religious minorities to treat one another unequally.

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