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Protests target Ontario Shariah proposal- CP and Free Press staff 2005-09-05

Protests target Ontario Shariah proposal- CP and Free Press staff 2005-09-05

OTTAWA -- Protesters will take to the streets this week in cities from Amsterdam to Victoria, all because of a bureaucratic proposal that would allow use of Islamic law in Ontario family arbitration.

The long-delayed decision on whether to formally include -- and regulate -- Shariah religious arbitration in the province has raised alarms among Canadian and European women's groups, dissidents from hardlineIslamic states such as Iran, human-rights activists, writers and humanist advocates.

Almost 100 groups have banded together under the banner of the International Campaign against Shariah Court in Canada.

On Thursday, they'll march in six cities in Europe and at least five in Canada.

Protests are planned in Ottawa, Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Victoria, as well as Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Stockholm, London and Paris.

Former Ontario attorney-general Marion Boyd, the longtime London politician who wrote the proposal that's sparking the protests, said yesterday she understands the fears of people from countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with their harsh Shariah law practices.

But that cannot happen in Canada, with its vastly different system of separate criminal and civil law, insists Boyd.

Sohaila Sharifi, an Iranian emigrant organizing a protest in front of the Canadian High Commission in London, said the Ontario situation is emblematic of a global battle between secular societies and "political Islam."

"If they win this fight in Canada, there is always the possibility that they would see it as a victory that could bring them one step forward," Sharifi said by e-mail.

"They would use the same argument to establish the same religious system here in Europe and elsewhere."

The "they" in question represent an odd, informal coalition of hardline Islamic fundamentalists, mainstream Muslim groups and Boyd, who studied the issue for the province and came up with the proposal.

But Boyd's vision of provincially regulated religious arbitration -- an existing 15-year-old system that would be further tightened under the mantle of Ontario family law and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- bears little resemblance to the Shariah law being debated by the warring camps.

Boyd said things are different in places such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Shariah law is fully operational.

"There's no distinction there between civil and criminal law, so you can be punished criminally for a civil issue like adultery or fornication," she said. "People have reason to be fearful of that, because they have experienced the excesses of that kind of regime."

In Canada, criminal law is entirely separate, and no arbitration decision could break the law, said Boyd. "Our entire constitution stands against that possibility."

The Boyd report was prompted by a retired Muslim lawyer, who, in 2003, announced he was setting up the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice to train arbitrators to use Ontario's existing arbitration legislation. But Syed Mumtaz Ali's view of Shariah was unabashedly fundamentalist and political.

The province ducked for cover by asking Boyd to examine the issue. It has sat on her report since last December.

In the meantime, opponents have dug in.

"The volatility of the debate has a lot to do with what people have experienced . . . in countries like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, where there is no doubt that Islamic law -- particularly these medieval rules of law -- are being enforced in various ways and have the effect of discriminating against women," said Anver Emon, a U.S. scholar in Islamic law at the University of Toronto.

But Emon said both extremes in the debate are defining Islamic law as a medieval model that won't fit in the modern Canadian context.

"What's interesting is both of these (warring) groups have the same conception of Shariah: it's these medieval rules," he said.

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