By Douglas Todd
June 7, 2013
The North Shore News recently ran a pleasant multicultural story about a new mosque, called Ar-Rahman, opening in the Norgate neighbourhood.
But phone lines heated up when readers noticed a line buried at the bottom of the story. That is where the mosque’s imam remarked, offhandedly, on how certain decisions involving members would be made “according to Muslim law, I mean the Shariah.”
The mention of “Shariah” set off alarm bells for some. They contacted The Vancouver Sun, claiming that the mosque would take away the rights of women, never allow them to divorce, sanction “honour killings,” and encourage Muslim men to marry four wives.
After a discussion with editors, I phoned the mosque’s directors. They were taken aback. Although they acknowledged the imam misspoke, one director was offended, referring to my line of questioning as anti-multicultural and “ostracizing.”
Another director said members would always adhere to the laws of Canada when conducting mosque business, Shariah or not. And another said he advises any Canadian Muslim woman or man seeking a divorce to consult a secular lawyer.
I asked some follow-up email questions of the all-male directors, but never heard back.
Leaders of the B.C. Muslim Association confirmed Muslims in Canada follow the nation’s laws, including on issues such as polygamy and the right to divorce. The Sun did not pursue the story.
But the controversy over Shariah law is not going away. I researched 10 major Canadian newspapers and discovered they published almost 1,000 stories about Shariah in the past year.
Since Infomart, a comprehensive online media archive, measures the tone of each article, I also discovered more than 82 per cent of the articles about shariah (also spelled “sharia”) took a “negative” angle, about 16 per cent were “neutral”, and two per cent were “positive.”
Clearly, Shariah gets Canadians worked up. But should it?
Researchers are unaware of any official Shariah courts in the U.S. or Canada, even though some imams offer voluntary dispute-resolution services based on principles of Islamic law.
In addition, Shariah is not unique. Most religions maintain their own internal codes of conduct, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, financial wrongdoing, and sexual behaviour.
Then there is the question of whether the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims interpret Shariah the same, or take it equally seriously.
The independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has in the past few months released two gigantic global studies on Muslims’ attitudes, especially toward Shariah.
To Westerners steeped in the value of freedom of choice, the Pew Forum’s army of pollsters has uncovered many things that are disturbing, even shocking, but, in other cases, hopeful.
One Pew Forum report looked at religious law in general.
It illustrated how religious law is widespread, including in North America. It is followed by Christians, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists (especially monks) and members of virtually every religion, particularly conservatives ones.
Roman Catholics have a complex system of religious rules and tribunals, known as canon law. The North American Catholic Church handles roughly 30,000 canon law cases a year — involving marriage annulments, divorce, excommunication, and priestly misconduct.
Jews, especially the Orthodox, also follow an extensive code of religious law, known as halakhah. Rabbinical courts rule mostly on divorce, child custody and business disputes, often in conjunction with civil authorities.
Mormon religious law is handled by male bishops or disciplinary councils, called “stakes.” They rule on adultery, marriage (which Mormons consider “eternal” into the afterlife), divorce, financial wrongdoing and apostasy, which the church defines as promoting teachings in opposition to Mormon doctrine.
Religious law is often less rigorous in mainline Protestantism. But Anglican bishops, for instance, oversee detailed canon codes involving clergy wrongdoing, including in regards to sexual relationships with congregants.
Clearly, religious law is not uncommon in North American. But that doesn’t make Shariah uncontroversial.
In April, the Pew Forum released a 226-page report on the beliefs of Muslims in 39 countries.
The survey, involving face-to-face interviews with 38,000 people, revealed a startling range of beliefs among the world’s Muslims.
Since Muslims, unlike Catholics, do not have a global hierarchy or single authority figure, their attitudes to Shariah law vary dramatically. Which is encouraging, to a point.
Indeed, in some countries, like Turkey and Lebanon, a majority of Muslims don’t want Shariah enshrined as the official law of their land. But most Muslims in other countries do.
(The Pew survey did not include U.S. and Canadian Muslims. But previous Pew research has found U.S. Muslims tend to be highly tolerant of diversity, with 56 per cent agreeing “many religions can lead to heaven,” compared to an average of just 18 per cent of global Muslims.)
Fortunately, most of the planet’s Muslims uphold some form of religious freedom — believing Shariah should apply only to Muslims.
Pew also found most Muslims stand up for the right of non-Muslims to practice their faiths. However, Muslims in some countries were concerned that principle was often broken.
Indeed, several Pew Forum findings on Shariah will be disconcerting to Westerners, most of whom embrace live-and-let-live values.
The Pew Forum, for instance, found the world’s Muslims “overwhelmingly view certain behaviours — including prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, abortion, euthanasia and consumption of alcohol — as immoral.”
It adds that “attitudes toward polygamy, divorce and birth control are more varied.” For example, only four per cent of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina support polygamy.
But a majority of Muslims in many African countries believe polygamy is “morally acceptable,” as do 37 per cent of Muslims in Pakistan.
The Pew findings regarding countries such as Pakistan should be of special interest to Canadians, since it is this nation’s largest source of Muslim immigrants.
There are more than 140,000 Pakistan-born Muslims in Canada. And it turns out the Pew Forum polls show Pakistani Muslims are among the most hard line.
For instance, most Muslims in countries such as Turkey and Eastern Europe believe a woman has a right to divorce her husband. But support for the woman’s choice to do so drops to just 26 per cent among Muslims in Pakistan.
Another Pew finding was both encouraging and disturbing. When the pollsters asked whether honour killings are ever justified for pre- or extra-marital sex, a strong majority of Muslims in places such as Indonesia, Jordan and Azerbaijan said they are “never justified,” regardless of whether a man or woman stands accused.
But in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Iraq (all of which are major sources of immigrants to Canada), more than half did not reject honour killings. For Canadians, that is appalling.
As a typical Canadian who supports choice on religion, I found another Pew finding shocking related to apostasy — when a Muslim leaves the faith. Pew found most of the world’s Muslims can live with a Muslim converting to a new worldview.
But in Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia, Afghanistan and other countries, more than two out of three Muslims who say Shariah should be the law of the land “favour the death penalty” for those who convert to another religion.
That, to put it mildly, is not good news.
The Canadian Muslims I have interviewed over the years always make it clear they do not agree with such extremist beliefs.
No matter what some Muslims believe in other parts of the world, Canadian Muslims have reassured me they respect this nation’s secular laws regarding religious freedom, divorce, sex outside marriage and women’s equality.
Let’s hope that always remains true.