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Sharia is an Arabic word that literally means "a path to water," the source of life. For Muslims, it is a comprehensive framework of justice based on the Koran and the example of Prophet Mohammed. Sharia's aim is five-fold: protection of life, faith, wealth, intellect and progeny. Sharia has spanned 14 centuries, numerous cultures and has given rise to at least five recognized schools of jurisprudence. It covers such disparate fields as economics, criminal justice, international relations and family matters. The study of sharia is so important that in the 1990s, Harvard law school launched an Islamic legal studies program.

Yet, many Canadians have opted for a more facile description: sharia, bad. Globe columnist Lysiane Gagnon equated it with incest. Anti- sharia activist Homa Arjomand has called for the imprisonment of sharia advocates. And Quebec MNA Fatima Houda-Pepin -- ripping a page from what might be called The Protocols of the Elders of Mecca -- continues to warn about the international conspiracy of Islamists to compliant Quebec media outlets. It's the same mantra she used a decade ago, dismissing those of us who campaigned for the right to wear the hijab as unwitting pawns of those same Islamists. Great fodder for Jon Stewart and The Daily Show -- except no one is laughing.

Undoubtedly, sharia-phobia has skewed the debate over Ontario faith-based arbitration to such a frenzied level that lies were perpetuated as facts, paranoia as patriotism. Just as the neo-conservative lobby peddled the bogus threat of Iraqi WMD, our own neo-secularists (including several Muslims) brazenly peddled Muslim family law as an existential threat to Western liberal democracy. As in the case with Iraq, the audience was a fearful public ready to accept its own biases coupled with sensational media accounts.

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And it worked. Like the French decision to ban "conspicuous" religious symbols in public schools, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's decision to ban all faith-based arbitration was aimed primarily at Muslims. Other religions were included to provide a veneer of fairness. At least the Quebec Legislature had the candour to express its animosity toward sharia alone, remaining silent on all other faiths.

Not so, you protest, there are legitimate issues of debate. Yes, but consider the following: During the 14 years of operation of Jewish, Aboriginal and Ismaili arbitration tribunals, the issues of "one law for all Ontarians," of "parallel justice systems" and the "ghettoization of minority groups" were never raised by the public. Why all the hue and cry when Muslims wish to avail themselves of the same rights as their fellow Ontarians?

And for those who view this as a victory for the protection of women -- think again. There are too many unqualified, ignorant imams making back-alley pronouncements on the lives of women, men and children. The practice will continue, without any regulation, oversight or accountability. Muslim women (and men) will still seek religious divorces and settlement of inheritance matters in accordance with their faith. And not just the ubiquitous downtrodden immigrant Muslim woman who speaks little English. Our overburdened courts will still need to rely on experts in Muslim family law to deal with pre-nuptial contracts. Nothing has really changed -- except the fact that we have missed a golden opportunity to shine light on abuses masquerading as faith, and to ensure that rulings don't contradict the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Despite the acrimony surrounding the debate, there have been a few silver linings. First has been the tremendous debate engendered within the Muslim community about the practicality (or lack thereof) of establishing such tribunals. Unlike rabbis and priests, there is no college of imams in Canada to provide accreditation. There are no institutes to train jurists in Muslim family law. Many Muslim women are ignorant about their own rights within Islam, schooled instead in cultural misogyny. And certain provisions -- such as inheritance shares between sons and daughters -- raise concerns of contradicting the Charter. There would have been no shame for community leaders to say: "While we acknowledge our right to arbitration, we admit that we are not ready. We need to first educate our community so its members can make informed choices." But even those who had doubts about Muslim tribunals have been stung by the shrill language of opponents and the abrupt ban by Mr. McGuinty.

Beneath the fear-mongering, however, lie fundamental issues that speak to our identity and values as Canadians. While we treasure the diversity of our population as a strength, an August Globe/CTV poll indicates that 69 per cent of Canadians believe that immigrants should be encouraged to integrate and become part of the broader society rather than maintain their ethnic identity and culture. Interestingly, an August poll by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that 60 per cent of Canadians believe that Muslims want to remain distinct from the broader society. This is not a healthy situation, and requires tough, honest discourse -- not the hyperbole we have just witnessed.

The other divide has to do with the place of faith in our society. Neo-secularists have their sights set on religious schools, faith-based lending institutions and "conspicuous" religious symbols. The majority of Canadians, like their European counterparts, do not ascribe an important role to faith in God. Yet in last year's landmark case of Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselem, the Supreme Court of Canada stated "the ability to freely express one's faith and one's connection with a religious community are as essential to human dignity as are food or shelter."

Will the banning of all faith-based tribunals violate this principle? Consider that Orthodox Jews must abide by the Beit Din (rabbinical courts). We must continue to find ways to accommodate the sacred and the secular that respect the basic human impulse of faith.

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Perhaps the McGuinty decision reflects the prevailing attitude of the majority. However, the way in which it was pronounced was shameful. A principled, detailed statement would have been far more satisfactory than the terse comments issued late Sunday on the fourth anniversary of 9/11.

Yes, criticism would have still ensued. But at least the Premier would not have left the impression that Islamophobia can play a prominent role in setting public policy.

CORRECTION

In my Sept. 15 column, the following quote was incorrectly attributed to the Supreme Court of Canada: "The ability to freely express one's faith and one's connection with a religious community are as essential to human dignity as are food or shelter." In fact, this quote was part of a factum submitted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Seventh-Day Ad ventist Church in Canada as interveners before the Supreme Court in the case of Northcrest v. Anselem.

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