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mercredi 1er novembre 2006

Muslim Groups Denounce the Cultural Relativism of a Certain Left

par Elaine Audet

Écrits d'Élaine Audet

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Right now, both in Canada and Europe, some leftwing activists and feminists claim that refusing to wear the veil and denying Muslims Islamic tribunals is an ethnocentric gesture that is bound to encourage the aggravated racism of the Bush administration towards Muslims since 9/11. Some even say that patriarchy and misogyny are found in all religions and to make people believe that Muslims are the only ones who discriminate women is an act of racism against Islam. They ask, why if Jews and Catholics have arbitration tribunals, the Muslims are denied the same ?

Such an argument comes down to a refusal to see that the groups who are denouncing the establishment of Islamic tribunals are opposed to all religious arbitration tribunals dealing with family rights, be it Muslim, Jewish or Catholic, and to oppression of women in whomever’s God name.

While the Canadian left has supported Afghan women against the Taliban’s fundamentalism and protested against the stoning of Iranian women by the Islamic Republic of Iran, it keeps a blind eye to Muslim women in Canada who express their fear of the potential establishment of tribunals based on the Charia law (Qur’an’s law) when it comes to judging cases which come under family law.

For fear of being called racist, some members of the left hide behind a blind support to the ethnical minorities representatives, provided they are against imperialism, their abstract altermondialism being more important than the very evident loss of rights that threatens Muslim women. Aware of the many ways in which the immigrants are being discriminated in Canada or elsewhere, the progressive forces have given up any criticism when it comes to them, for fear of being accused of islamophobia or racism. The promoters of the Islamic courts take advantage of this for carrying their cause in the name of leftist values, such as equality, anti-racism and freedom of thought.

Left wing intellectuals do not have to become the "Pontius Pilates of the mind" as the Iranian writer Chahdortt Djavann puts it and, in the name of cultural differences, they do not have to abandon women to the religious law of their community. Moreover, asks the same writer, since these are old culture traditions, why not make stoning and excision or wed locks between minors and old men admissible ? It is about time we refused in a straight forward manner "that culture is an alibi to religion and religion to sexist discrimination". (1) I have asked spokesmen for Muslim groups in Canada for their opinion on the subject.

Parallel tribunals would be harmful to women

In the opinion of the president for the Iranian Women’s Association of Montreal (AFIM), Elaheh Chokrai, everybody has a right to practice his/her religion as he/she wishes, but in no way can religion be mixed up with politics. We have to keep on fighting for churches, synagogues and mosques to stay clear of law and politics. We do not need parallel tribunals. If improvements can be done, if there is a flaw in the Chart of Rights, we won’t solve it by referring to these 1400 year old laws." According to Elaheh Chokrai, "Parallel tribunals would be harmful especially to those who have less means, to women who after-all must stay home to take care of their children and find it more difficult to find jobs in our world."

"The Charest Government", she exclaims, "considers that people will candidly accept that it is fully financing the Jewish schools in order to better integrate the Jewish community. If the Jews have not succeeded integrating in the last 300 years, will paying them 10 million dollars a year help them integrate ? Far from it, it will isolate them. There are Greek schools, Jewish schools and Muslim schools that must remain private while public schools and tribunals must be secular. How can one imagine that in refusing the establishment of Islamic tribunals one will encourage islamophobia ? Did separating the Catholic Church from the State bring on fear christianophobia ? (2)

The non Muslim left is being duped

As for Tarek Fatah, the president of the [ex-] Canadian Muslim Congress (CMC), he thinks that it is more likely that the very establishment of Islamic tribunals brings on racism. He claims that "in August 2004, we have delivered a memoir to the Boyd Commission and told it that if it encourages the establishment of Islamic tribunals based on the Charia, it would only be helping the racist social stratas of society within the non Muslim Canadians who have no higher hope but to exclude Muslims from the whole society. We wrote in our memoir that Islamic tribunals isolate the Muslim community which originates from 5 different continents of 1.3 billions people, a large span of sects, languages, cultures and traditions, each of which is being consigned to a lesser class compartment as far as human and family rights are concerned which is a sector under the public jurisdiction.

"These discriminations and seclusions which are insidious to the point of being invisible cannot but serve the political and extremist agendas of some stratas of the Canadian Muslim promoters for Islamic law ; they contradict Canadian values and serve the reactionary, intolerant and racist stratas of the Canadian non Muslim society whose only wish is to marginalize Muslims All of which is being played behind the mask of religious tolerance and reasonable conciliation. (3)

Tarek Fatah, a neo-democrat like most members of the CMC, adds that "Many people who belong to the left are moving blind in a mine field." For him, this is all about a sense of laziness trying to be perceived as multicultural tolerance. It is racism that requires separate laws in one single State. The sooner we become aware of this slippery slope to isolating the Muslim community, says Tarek Fatah, the better it will be for the New Democratic Party (NPD) which keeps close ties at all levels with the Muslim rightwing.

While the NDP’s goal is fighting for the weak and the rights of minorities, the Muslim rightwing uses the concept to grab concessions from it, as previously seen in the Marion Boyd report. In fact, says Tarek Fatah, 49 out of the resolutions in the Boyd report come from the right wing religious group led by Syed Mumtaz Ali, the solicitor from Toronto who is at the root of the project for the establishment of Islamic tribunals all over Canada.

Mr Fatah "regrets that no Jewish group has criticized the Government for legally approving rabbinical courts. The Bnai Brith actually justifies the existence of religious arbitration courts and does not hesitate about joining the Islamic fundamentalists to defend their common interests." Mr Fatah adds that this is a way for these groups to perpetuate the patriarchal and religious order within family and community. He ascertains that, since 9/11, the right wing Muslims are very well organised and "are highly successful in manipulating the left as well as the NPD. But not everybody is duped ; only the non Muslim left is !"

Rising of political Islamism in the West

Homa Arjomand is in charge of the No Charia movement in Canada. She reckons that the establishment of Islamic courts in Canada has nothing to do with Islam as faith, but is a movement that is part of political Islam. This movement first started acting in Northern Africa and in the Middle East and it has now spread to the West. I, for my part, declares Arjomand, would like to stress the fact that this movement seeks to gain more influence with the Western political parties that are in power and, of course, with the Bush Administration. The 9/11 tragedy is actually part of the strategy to seek the political recognition of the whole world."

"The word Islamophobia was invented to dupe people" says Ms. Arjomand. She, like many others, thinks that "there is good reason to fear political Islamism. Not a day goes by without this movement disturbing the public by murdering men or women fighters for their freedom of thought. In countries where this movement is established, it has become a normal thing to cut hands, hang, stone to death, whip in public, enforce the burqa on women, abuse children morally and sexually. In countries like Canada where this movement has not yet reached enough power, fundamentalists try to establish courts based on the Charia. Speaking of Islamophobia is meant to help prevent citizens, men and women, to resist such a movement.

In Ms. Arjomand’s view, it is clear that it is an act of racism to create two separate legal and ruling systems for Canadian men and women. It is necessary to fight discrimination against the most vulnerable areas of our society, women and children. We must refuse the division of our society into a majority and minorities. We must insist on one law for all, independent of gender, race, ethnic group, etc. (4)

Pure multiculturalism is dangerous

Alia Hogben, director general of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women (CCFM), was very disappointed to find out that the establishment of Islamic Courts in Canada had been endorsed by a feminist who belonged to a leftwing party (the NDP) which had previously issued the Arbitration Act in Ontario, in 1991. While celebrating the 15th anniversary of Canadian multiculturalism on February 6, 2004, Ms. Hogben declared : "If not based on values and laws that are shared by all Canadian men and women, pure multiculturalism is dangerous and can bring the division of the various ethnic groups. We are also aware that extreme forms of cultural relativism undermine the common Canadian identity. We support none of the groups that not just insist on the safeguard of their original cultural identity but seem to promote changes that could damage the common values. Unfortunately, some people believe that multiculturalism gives them the right to shift the balance between the celebration of diversity and the reinforcement of the Canadian common identity".

"The recent motion to establish courts based on the Charia in Canada takes its support on the discourse for the defence of religious rights and individual rights. The answer that is given to this by the Canadian Council for Muslim Women is that Muslim women are better served by Canadian law and that they should be treated, as equal under this law, without distinction. It is not up to Muslims, as Canadian citizens, to practice the Charia and we are worried of the consequences for Muslim women. Here is an example of diversity that has gone wrong, letting division take over cohesion." (5)

CCMW recognizes that "other religious groups use arbitration courts to settle their litigations but, according to its perception, the use made by rabbinical courts of religious laws mainly concern commercial litigations. The Arbitration Act is not used for Jewish divorce cases or "Get". The same applies for Catholic or Anglican confessions. As for the Ismaelian Muslims, they have established their own arbitration commission, subjecting it to Canadian laws." (6)

Ms. Boyd has heard the promoters of religious arbitration courts claim that they appeal to freedom of religion. The CCMW believes that "according to the Canadian chart of rights and freedoms, the right of the individual - in this case the rights of women - must be considered first and primordial, because it protects fundamental individual rights. These rights include an equal treatment in the eyes of the law." The CCMW has also informed Ms. Boyd that "the main opposition to the use of religious courts in cases of family rights is due to the inherent inequality between men and women in most religious contexts, and to the inequality of power that results from it when litigations arise between them." (7)

All these testimonies demonstrate that, as Tarek Fatah used to say : "The perception of a form of racism in the opposition to Islamic courts often arises from leftwing non-Muslim spheres." In the name of Canadian multiculturalism, the leftwing party chooses to put the right to freedom of religion, referred to by the Muslim right-wingers for justifying the establishment of Islamic courts, before the protection of rights that are specific to women which are threatened by such courts.


1. Chahdortt Djavann, Bas les voiles, Paris, Gallimard, 2003.
2. Read on Sisyphe : Interview with Elaheh Chokrai, January 20, 2005.
3. The Canadian Sharia Debate, For more information.
4. No sharia in Canada
5. Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Multiculturalism 15th anniversary.
6. Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Ruling of Commercial litigations.
7. Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Primordial Women’s Rights.

March 8, 2005

Translated for Sisyphe by Sylvie Miller

On Sisyphe, November 17, 2006

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Elaine Audet

Poet, essayist and independent researcher, Elaine Audet was born in Quebec in 1936. She published in Quebec, France and Switzerland, and collaborated to magazines and collective works. From 1990 to 2004, she wrote a literary and feminist column for the monthly magazine of political information, l’aut’journal. She is presently associate editor of Sisyphe. She is the author of : Pour une éthique du bonheur, (essay, remue-ménage, 1994), Le Cycle de l’éclair (poetry, Loup de Gouttière, 1996), Le Cœur pensant/courtepointe de l’amitié entre femmes (essay, Loup de Gouttière, 2000).
Her latest books are :

 Prostitution - perspectives féministes, (éditions Sisyphe, 2005).
 La plénitude et la limite, poésie, (éditions Sisyphe, 2006).
 Prostitution, Feminist Perspectives, (éditions Sisyphe, 2009).
 Sel et sang de la mémoire, Polytechnique, 6 décembre 1989, poésie, (éditions Sisyphe, 2009).

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