Is Sharia law coming to Canada? Will Muslim women soon be stoned to death for cheating on their husbands? You might think so from surfing the Internet these past two weeks. But the truth is much more banal.
The story begins on November 25 with an article in the Canadian magazine Law Times about a group of Muslims seeking to set up an "Islamic Institute of Civil Justice." As reported, the body will invite consenting Muslims to submit disputes about marriage, money and other civil matters to arbitrators schooled in the precepts of Islamic religious law. Assuming the decisions are otherwise consistent with federal law (more on this below), these Sharia judgments would then be enforceable in Canadian courts.
On the surface, the idea sounds controversial. But it shouldn't be. Canadian arbitration law is generic: Consenting parties can seek to have their disputes settled according to just about any code they wish -- providing they can find a suitably competent arbitrator. If individual Jews wanted
their disputes to be judged according to Talmudic law, they would theoretically be able to get those judgments upheld in court as well.
Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on the Web's bloggers. Three days after the Law Times article appeared, WorldNetDaily, a populist, right-wing Web site with an international following, reported the news with the following sensational lead: "Canadian judges soon will be enforcing Islamic law, or Sharia, in disputes between Muslims, possibly paving the way to one day administering criminal sentences, such as stoning women caught in adultery."
Shortly thereafter, American Daily, a right-wing opinion Web site, reported under the headline "Canada Allowing Sharia Barbaric Laws?" that we might be witnessing "a first step in the destruction of the Canadian Court system. The Canadians will have allowed their laws to be replaced by the whim or tradition from the homelands of any immigrant community." The next day, on the similarly minded ChronWatch, a writer argued that the latest news proved Canada is "a liability in the battle against Islamic extremism."
Then this past Thursday, The Globe and Mail splashed the headline "Tribunal will apply Islamic law in Ontario" on its front page. (The Web version wisely toned this down to "Islamic law in civil disputes raises questions.") We have no idea why the Globe editors thought this two-week-old story was worthy of A1 treatment. But at least their reporter made it clear that Ontario's Arbitration Act is subordinate to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which forbids, among other things, discrimination against women. For that matter, the Act also permits judges the discretion to strike down arbitration judgments that are contrary to public policy, or that encroach on federal statutes -- such as the Divorce Act and the Criminal Code.
The question of how much would be left of Sharia after courts strip away everything that is sexist or otherwise prohibited is an interesting question -- but not one we need to deal with here. Our point is that giving Muslims the right to apply Sharia in the resolution of mundane civil disputes will not lead to the stoning of adulterous women -- or any other scandalous result.
In other words, while the combination of Ontario arbitration law and Sharia may titillate the blogosphere, Canadians have little to fear.