08 September 2005

Sharia and the Ground

The controversy over whether to allow Islamic sharia law to govern Muslim civil and domestic affairs in Ontario is yet another lesson in figure and ground. Today’s Globe and Mail has a horrific tale of sharia-law-gone-wrong (at least according to my non-Islamic sensibilities). Essentially, a devout Muslim woman was coerced into giving up her right to spousal support so that her ex-husband would consent to a divorce under sharia law. The alternative was that the husband – who himself had re-married in an Islamic ceremony – could be able to seize their child and remove him from Canada (his birthplace) under sharia law, in defiance of Canadian law. Of course, giving up spousal support was a “compromise” for the woman:
The imam told her that her spouse wanted $100,000 and all her gold jewellery, she said, asking that her identity not be disclosed because she fears retribution from her ex-husband, the imam and her community. She managed to bargain him down to $5,000, money she had to borrow. She also agreed to give up all child-support payments and alimony, and not to take legal action against him in the future.
Before one responds that this is not the intent of sharia law, and its application in the Province of Ontario, the proponents of this addition to civil procedure in the province are quite clear in their intent. The Globe’s Margaret Wente reports:
"The sharia or divine law of Islam prevails over all man-made laws," wrote Abdul Malik Quraoshi in a letter to The Hamilton Spectator. "It is crystal clear in the Holy Book of Islam. No human institution can have the audacity and the cheek to interpret sharia." But don't worry. As he goes on: "Islam is a positive religion and emphasizes total loyalty and absolute obedience to its fundamental doctrines."
So where do figure and ground come in? Those who are pushing the McGuinty government to include the application of sharia to the 1991 Arbitration Act that “provides for voluntary faith-based arbitration to resolve civil and family-law disputes,” point to the fact that both Jews and Catholics have set up religious-based tribunals to preside over family law matters. They claim it is discriminatory to disallow Muslims the same right. That is the figure view. The ground, however, can be taken as a context of social justice and fundamental human rights. My admittedly limited knowledge of the actual proceedings of existing religious tribunals suggests that women have been well-protected and represented in these matters. (My sister, for example, was granted a Jewish divorce through the Bet Din, and it was her ex-husband who was given the difficult time for abandoning her, but that’s a different story.) Most certainly, I have never heard of an incident in which rabbis or priests forced the woman to give up her rights, and pay an ex-husband in contravention of Canadian rulings, in order to obtain a divorce.

Although the McGuinty government should be lauded for considering the multi-cultural fabric of this province, it should not lose sight of the underlying contextual ground that has enabled the province to attain its rich character in the first place. From all reports (except the one that the government commissioned in order to “justify” including sharia) – including reports from Muslim scholars around the world – permitting sharia law to govern in this province may well prove to be a mistake that shakes its foundation to the ground.
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