- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

TORONTO — Canadian Muslims are hoping to borrow a leaf from the book of the country’s Jewish community by establishing the right to settle civil issues in special “Shariah” courts, much as Canadian Jews are able to take disputes to rabbinical courts.

The newly formed Islamic Institute of Civil Justice says it plans to establish committees that will arbitrate marital disputes and other civil dealings gone wrong.

They will then file the agreements with the Canadian courts for ratification. Under recent amendments to Canadian law, an arbitrator’s ruling cannot be appealed.

Many Canadian provinces now allow arbitrators or mediators, religious or not, to present courts with settlements as a way to relieve pressure on the legal system.

“Beit Din,” or rabbinical courts, rule on matters of religious jurisdiction for the nation’s Jewish community.

Canadian Muslim leaders concede the arbitration plan may not be welcomed or understood by all.

“It has nothing to do with stone throwing,” explained Husain Bhayat, a retired teacher who helped form the institute at a Toronto meeting two months ago.

“It’s community-based mediation and arbitration in civil cases — not criminal cases — that abides by Canadian law,” he added. “It will save time, save money and save many families the agony of enduring a long court case.”

But critics question how far the Islamic institute will go in its rulings and say it shouldn’t be granted any legal authority at all.

“Shariah law is known in the West mainly by its more extreme clauses, which recommend brutal punishments and authorize the unequal treatment of women,” said a recent editorial in the Montreal Gazette.

“Perhaps this is an unfair image. But no country can have two competing codes of law,” it concluded.

Under Shariah law, which is practiced in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and parts of Nigeria, convicted adulteresses are sentenced to death by stoning and convicted thieves have their hands or feet amputated.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union says it is worried that any Canadian move to recognize Shariah law would give it credibility and spark other countries to follow suit.

“My fear is that once these tribunals are set up, Muslims will be obliged by social pressure to use them, thereby denying to themselves many of the rights that we in the West have fought for for centuries,” said Roy Brown, president of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union.

“It will take a brave Muslim woman to defy her husband and a foolhardy one to refuse to have her dispute settled under Islamic law,” he said, “when her refusal could be equated with, at best, hostility to her religion and, at worst, apostasy.”

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