Socialists & Sharia Courts
For the Separation of Religion and State!
In September 2005, the Liberal government of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, ended months of speculation by announcing that it would not extend the 1991 Arbitration Act (which gave Christian and Jewish clerics the right to make legally-binding rulings on civil disputes normally handled in family court) to include Islamic tribunals. Instead, the government decided to end all religious arbitration. The Liberals’ move came after public pressure was generated by a campaign that was spearheaded by supporters of the Worker-communist Party of Iran and heavily supported by bourgeois feminists and various other secular organizations.
While most of the left welcomed the decision as a reaffirmation of the democratic principle of the separation of religion and state, the International Socialists (IS—an affiliate of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party) opposed it, presumably to ingratiate themselves with Canada’s oppressed Muslim minority. In the months that followed, the IS held several public meetings on the topic in Toronto, where they proudly reported having sold their paper in front of a local mosque. IS coverage of the issue has pointed to the supposedly progressive elements of sharia (Islamic) law:
“All religions are contradictory. Why aren’t the opponents of the use of the arbitration act highlighting those aspects of Islamic law which say it is the man’s responsibility to share in the cleaning and cooking, that gives women, along with men, the right to divorce, that mandates child-support from the estranged husband?”
—Socialist Worker (Canada), 8 October 2005
IS members have had difficulty explaining why socialists should favor the integration of clerical and state authority. When pressed, they claim that opposing religious courts can foster Islamophobia:
“In France, the government banned Muslim girls from attending school if they wore the hijab, and widespread support for this law is similar to what we now see over Sharia. Abstract calls for secularism mask the undertones of racism and sexism that see Islam as uniquely reactionary, or Muslim women as uniquely passive victims in need of imposed liberation.”
—Socialist Worker, 8 June 2005
Marxists oppose the headscarf ban as a racist attack on the religious freedom of a persecuted minority (see “No to the Hijab Ban!”, 1917 No. 27). But investing clerics with the authority of the state is not a matter of freedom of conscience—it is an assault on one of the key gains of bourgeois democracy. Those who are unable (or unwilling) to make this elementary distinction have no right to claim to be any sort of socialist.