EDMONTON -- Alberta has to approach arbitration based on Muslim religious law with "extreme caution," warns the executive director of Edmonton's Canadian Arab Friendship Association. A recent report by former Ontario attorney general Marion Boyd avoids the use of the term "Sharia," but concludes Muslims in the province should be able to seek arbitration based on religious law for family disputes and inheritance cases.
"The biggest concern that we have is that there is proper control. Often, the spirit of Sharia law is pro-female, but the implementation is not," said the friendship association's Nora Abou-Absi.
"If there's no accountability system in place, we don't want it."
Sharia law, as practised in the Middle East, combines criminal and civil laws and allows the death penalty for adultery. It also considers a woman's testimony to be worth half that of a man.
There are also Sharia rules that side with women but are misunderstood in the West, Abou-Absi said.
Alberta is unlikely to wade into the debate because "for better or worse, Alberta is less politically correct than Ontario and ... doesn't pander to religious demands," said University of Alberta law professor Annalise Acorn.
"It's outrageous that our sense of political correctness would subject Muslims to these kinds of draconian measures that completely disregard the rights of women in the family," Acorn said.
"There's nothing in the law to stop a Muslim woman from accepting a judgment based on Sharia law, but to go past that and to give this state sanction and acknowledgement is unconscionable."
SAFEGUARDS CALLED FOR
Boyd called for safeguards to protect people from being forced into faith-based arbitration. She suggested mediators screen each party separately about issues of power imbalance and domestic violence before using Sharia arbitration.
No one's requested the introduction of Sharia law here, said Mark Cooper, a spokesman for Alberta Justice.
Arbitration has to comply with federal and provincial laws, and many Muslims already go to their imams for mediation, said Larry Shaben, chairman of the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities.