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Sharia courts: Lessons from Ontario

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In this piece, Christian Concern's Director of Islamic Affairs, Tim Dieppe, discusses a visit from human rights campaigner Raheel Raza, who shared how sharia courts were abolished in Canada. Tim highlights some of the ways that this was achieved, and says that we can learn from this in the UK.

In 2006 in the province of Ontario, Canada, the law allowing sharia courts to arbitrate family matters using sharia law was abolished. Arbitration of family law disputes under any body of laws except Ontario law was banned. Yet in the UK, the British government has continued to allow sharia courts to operate in our communities, enabling something approaching a parallel legal system. What happened in Ontario and what lessons can be applied here?

This week, prominent and outspoken campaigner Raheel Raza came over to London from Ontario to share her insights into how this was achieved in Canada. Raza is a Muslim mother who speaks very robustly and articulately about the problems of radical Islam. Amongst other things, she has produced an excellent fifteen minute documentary "By The Numbers" which criticises politicians for saying that Islamic terrorism "has nothing to do with Islam", or for saying that Islamists are only a ‘tiny minority’ of the Muslim world. She uses reputable surveys to show that, while a minority position, the numbers of Muslims who would support suicide bombing, for example, run into many millions of people. She unashamedly proclaims that this is a problem, not just for Muslims, but for everyone, and it is not helped by people pretending that the problem isn’t there.

Raza describes herself as Pakistani by birth, Canadian by choice, and spiritually Muslim. She is a human rights campaigner, and so with this perspective she speaks out about the discriminatory nature of sharia law and the human rights abuses that it causes. She has received death threats and hate mail for her courageous work. She is unafraid to address controversial issues, for example arguing as a Muslim that Canada should ban the niqab and the Burka in public. In 2014 she proposed a moratorium on immigration from Muslim countries along with various other robust measures to counter Islamic radicalism.

 In 2003, there was a move to establish sharia councils in Ontario on much the same basis as they operate here under arbitration laws. This was revealed in the press by a journalist, which kicked off some discussion and debate. Muslim and non-Muslim campaigners went on the offensive with a huge lobbying campaign, including speaking in the media over an extended period. Their main argument was that they wanted "one law for all."

Former attorney general, Marion Boyd was commissioned to review how the arbitration act was working in Ontario. The Boyd Report, as it became known, was published in 2004, and recommended that "The Arbitration Act should continue to allow disputes to be arbitrated using religious law, if the safeguards currently prescribed and recommended by this Review are observed." It took a politically correct view that people should be able to make rulings using their own beliefs. It was subtitled: "Protecting Choice, Promoting Inclusion." Campaigners continued to object that this would undermine the fundamental principle of one law for all. This argument gained traction and eventually won the day, with the government agreeing to prohibit the use of arbitration to make rulings using another system of law. Some use of sharia law to make rulings is still happening under the surface, but everyone knows that this is illegal and that they are being watched. Religious marriages must have civil registration which prevents polygamy and gives legal rights to the women.

In the UK, the government has initiated a review into sharia courts, but this has attracted a lot of criticism for the terms of reference and the lack of human rights representation on the panel. The government has yet to respond to these criticisms, and consequently many human rights groups and campaigners have boycotted the review, arguing that it is set up to be a whitewash. Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Select Committee, has also been conducting its own review into sharia courts which has not been boycotted by these organisations.

The lesson from Canada is that if people are willing to campaign and speak out with courage and boldness about this issue, public perception and political will can change. If sharia courts can be abolished in Canada, they can be abolished here. In a meeting this week, Raza said: "Political correctness and the silence of the majority is the cause of the problem." Sharia law and its inherent discriminatory nature needs to be criticised, and the fundamental principle of one law for all needs to be defended.

Related Links: 
Independent review into sharia law launched  
Sharia council inquiry criticised
Professor boycotts government's sharia review  
Book Review: 'Women and Shar'ia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK'  
By the numbers: The untold story of Muslim opinions and demographics (The Clarion Project) 
Dispute Resolution in Family Law: Protecting Choice, Promoting Inclusion (Ministry of the Attorney General Canada) 
Sharia councils inquiry (UK Parliament) 
Bill S-7 (Historical) (Open Parliament Canada) 
As a Muslim, I Think Canada Should Ban the Niqab and Burka in Public (Huffington Post) 
An open letter to all Canadians – Canada is under attack! (Raheel Raza)