In December, 2006, the polling firm Environics surveyed 500 adult Muslims across Canada on questions relating to their experiences living in Canada. The results were accurate to within plus or minus 4.4 percentage points (in 19 out of 20 samples). The demographic statistics revealed a diverse Muslim population, belying the notion of a singular Muslim community.
The survey found that 45 per cent of Canadian Muslims possess a university degree (or higher), compared with 33 per cent of the general Canadian population. At the time, 94 per cent of those surveyed were proud of being Canadian, citing Canadian policies of democracy, multiculturalism, peace and humanitarianism as sources of their pride. When asked what they liked least, the majority replied: "weather and taxes." Only 6 per cent cited Canada's foreign policy.
While security issues present challenges to social cohesion, the Environics survey revealed trends among the "weather and taxes" Muslims that may test our multicultural model in the years to come.
This majority believe that they are treated better here than in any other Western country; that the quality of life for Muslim women is better here than anywhere else (including most Muslim countries); that Canadians are less hostile to Islam when compared to European citizens; and that they are willing to adopt Canadian customs.
Yet 44 per cent of Canadian Muslims believe Canada should accommodate their traditional beliefs, while 81 per cent of the general population thinks immigrants should adopt mainstream Canadian beliefs. In particular, 53 per cent of Muslims think sharia law should be recognized as a legal basis for settling family disputes, while an overwhelming majority of the general population disagrees. Of those surveyed, 55 per cent of Muslim women and 59 per cent of Muslims aged 18 to 29 indicated their preference for sharia law. Remember, this survey was conducted one year after the Ontario sharia controversy.
These numbers suggest that the use of sharia in Canada is by no means a dead issue, even if sharia arbitration courts have been deemed illegal in many provinces. Just look at Britain, where the government has been grappling with the role of sharia in family law. The popularity of informal "Islamic courts" - which have no standing in British law - has been growing steadily. Most cases involve women seeking divorce. Since these "courts" are outside the legal system, there is no accountability, review or transparency of the judgments, and no formal standards or training for the judges, who are exclusively male. Some have received training in Saudi Arabia, where a conservative form of Islam is prevalent.
In domestic violence cases, Islamic scholars have hesitated to dissolve abusive marriages, leaving wives too intimidated to pursue charges. In one case, a judge declined to grant a divorce to a victim of domestic violence. Her father then came forward in support, at which point the judge reversed his decision, highlighting the central role of the family patriarch in such proceedings.
The British situation illustrates that if sharia is driven underground, quasi-courts will proliferate in response to demand, without the necessary checks and balances. Given the growing affinity to sharia here, there will be future debates on this topic. Instead of the hysteria of 2005 in Ontario, we will need to engage in rational discourse about the flexibility of sharia; identities in flux; the role of religious belief in family law; and the balance between religious freedom and gender equality. In spite of reassurances by proponents, traditional Islamic law contradicts gender equality in inheritance and divorce.
Underlying this is the question: Why the growing affinity to sharia? Since 9/11, Canadian Muslims have felt increased discrimination. This has a direct impact on identity and how a minority perceives its acceptance by the majority. With the raucous, sometimes racist, nature of the Ontario controversy, many Muslims were forced to focus on sharia as a component of identity, resulting in a plurality wishing to abide by Islamic principles in matters of family law.
Making Islamic arbitration illegal will not make it vanish. Without proper oversight of informal sharia courts, we risk ending up with the mess in Britain.