Syed Muntaz Ali wanted to introduce sharia law in Ontario, Canada. This prompted debate and protests, both for and against the use of sharia law. The most important protests came from within the Muslim community, especially from Muslim women, who said that sharia law favors men over women. In 2005 Premier Dalton McGuinty ended religious arbitration and brought everyone in Ontario under one law.
Once every ten years, Statistic Canada collects data relating to religion of the population. In 2001, the Muslim population in the Canadian province of Ontario was recorded as 352,530, which made up 3.1 percent of the population. This is a rise in the Muslim population as it was less than one percent in 1991.
In 2005 a Toronto lawyer, Syed Mumtaz Ali, announced that an Islamic Institute of Civil Justice would begin arbitrating Muslim family matters on the basis of sharia law. Many Muslim leaders supported Ali arguing that Jewish as well as Catholic tribunals had been arbitrating family matters under the 1991 Arbitration Act. Therefore, arbitration for Muslims according to Islamic laws should also be provided. The attempt to introduce sharia law was answered by outrage and protest by women’s groups, as they saw it threatening the equal rights of women. One could relate this to Islamic phobia because of media images of such incidents as execution of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban interpretation of sharia law. However, “liberal” Muslim groups also protested against the introduction of sharia law. One of the most prominent was the Muslim Canadian Congress, which defends “a progressive, liberal, pluralistic, democratic, and secular society where everyone has the freedom of religion.”
The most important protests came from Muslim women, who complained that sharia law threatened equal rights for women as it favors men over women. Syed Mumtaz Ali did say that choice between religious or civil arbitration would be up to each family. Ali also said that non-Muslims could serve as arbitrators, and that women could seek independent legal advice during the proceedings. However, the fear that many Muslim women had was that if sharia law was introduced, then their families would force them to accept Islamic arbitration. Further, many of the Muslim women were recent immigrants to Canada from Muslim countries where sharia law is intertwined with the state. They were not in favour of the idea of sharia law in Canada, which is their new homeland. Therefore, any satisfaction that Ali tried to provide Muslim women was rejected. In 2005, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty rejected the use of sharia law and moved to prohibit all religious-based tribunals in the settlement of family disputes. The Premier said that he would make the boundaries between church and state clearer by banning all faith-based arbitration.
The sharia episode is important because the Muslims who were in favor of sharia, thought that if other religions could have arbitration then the Muslim community should have that right too. However, the interesting element here is that protest came from within the Muslim community, from ‘liberal’ Muslim groups and Muslim women, who enjoyed equality under arbitration from the state. Therefore, they rejected the use of sharia law. This revealed a division in the Muslim community. There are those who favor sharia law and claim that Islamic arbitration is important for them to gain equal rights in Canada while those who are against it claim that sharia law causes inequality especially towards women. It was the right choice of Premier Dalton McGuinty to finish religious arbitration altogether and bring everyone in Ontario under one law. Why MaGuinty took this decision is not clear. However, he clearly showed the line between church and state. Further, if he had simply banned Islamic arbitration then it would show signs of religious inequality towards the Muslim community. By ending all forms of religious arbitration, McGuinty showed that the Ontario government treats all religions, whether in minority or majority, equally.
CBC coverage of the Ontario Premier’s rejection of sharia law:
Why the Muslim Canadian Congress opposes Shariah Law in Ontario: