Spartacist Canada No. 142

Fall 2004

For Separation of Religion and State

No to Ontario's "Sharia Courts"!

Down With Anti-Muslim Racism!

After a campaign of more than a decade by the Canadian Society of Muslims, in late 2003 the Ontario government authorized Islamic sharia tribunals to function under existing arbitration laws. Under the 1991 Arbitration Act, tribunal decisions will be binding and will be upheld by Ontario courts unless coercion is shown. The new sharia courts are to deal with family law—marriage, divorce, inheritance—where women's subjugation is most brutally enforced. This is an outrage that will deepen the oppression and isolation of Muslim women. As revolutionary Marxists, atheists and fighters for women's liberation, we are unalterably opposed to the new sharia courts.

We are against all intrusion of religion into an already deeply unjust legal system that exists to defend capitalist private property and is driven by Christian thirst for vengeance and punishment. Religion ought to be a private matter in relation to the state. People should be free to practice their religion without the state persecution and religious bigotry which has spawned centuries of repression and bloodshed. But these religious tribunals are not a matter of private religious practice. Their rulings will have the force of law, making them part of the legal machinery of the capitalist state which in turn is to be the enforcer of religious obscurantism.

Sharia Law and Muslim Women

Sharia is the 1,300-year-old body of Muslim canon law that regulates every aspect of life. In Muslim personal law, women are inherently unequal (as in all organized religion); indeed they are considered less than fully human. Women may be beaten by their husbands, denied divorce, or divorced by the husband simply repeating three times, "I divorce you." Who can forget Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman who narrowly escaped death by stoning for having a child out of wedlock?

Many of the opponents of Ontario's sharia plans are women who have fled Iran. Women in that "Islamic paradise" must cover themselves in the headscarf (hijab); they may not work in occupations that might compromise their "chastity"; and they can be stoned to death (and many have been) for having sexual relationships outside of marriage. In 2003 three young Iranian women—Nika, Mahdis and Mahnam Nahasati—were arrested, beaten with chains and sentenced to 120 lashes for the "crime" of allegedly having boyfriends. They had to overcome multiple racist hurdles thrown up by Canadian immigration authorities in order to escape Iran. Their brother Mohsen Mofidi was less fortunate—sentenced to 80 lashes, he died of injuries inflicted by the regime.

We especially oppose the Koranic strictures that dictate the seclusion of women. The head-to-toe chador (veil) is a walking prison, physically excluding women from society. It is not primarily a religious statement, but an embodiment of the submission of women to men, and the permanent, imposed affirmation of their inferior status. It represents the extension outside the home of the seclusion imposed on women by reactionary sharia law. We solidarize with the countless women who have sought to escape this tyranny, whether in the historically Muslim world or the imperialist centers.

Attempting to defuse protest, both the Ontario government and would-be Muslim jurists insist that participation in the tribunals is voluntary and that their decisions will be compatible with Canadian law. This would be a "Canadianized" and "watered-down sharia," according to Mumtaz Ali, "patron-in-chief" of the new Islamic Institute of Civil Justice which aims to run the tribunals.

The insistence that participation is "voluntary" is false. To its proponents, following sharia is obligatory, as Ali made clear in a 1995 interview: "Once the parties have agreed to be governed by Muslim PFL [Personal Family Law], then they will be committed to it by their prior consent…. [A] Muslim who would choose to opt out at this stage, for reasons of convenience would be guilty of a far greater crime than a mere breach of contract—and this could be tantamount to blasphemy-apostasy." Ali demands that women be veiled and that purdah—the enforced seclusion of women—is a necessity. He endorses a "learned author" who denounces "fornication" as a "hideous crime" and who upholds "the Shari'ah punishment" of 100 lashes because it "terrifies the whole population."

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, which opposes the new tribunals, fears that women will simply be coerced into taking part. Similarly, the editor of the bulletin Women in the Middle East, Azam Kamguian, told a March 7 Toronto meeting:

"Too many women from Muslim origin living in the west still live in Islamic and patriarchal environments where the man's word and pressure from the community is law. It will take a brave woman to defy her husband, and to refuse to have her dispute settled under Islamic law when her refusal could be equated with hostility to the religion and apostasy."

Women who try to break out of this web of religious oppression are shunned, ostracized and cut off from family and friends. If the capitalist courts enforce reactionary religious law, this can only worsen. While bourgeois justice is racist, anti-working class and anti-woman, it does represent a social advance over reactionary pre-capitalist and even pre-feudal institutions such as religious trials by clerics of any persuasion.

Sharia Law and Anti-Muslim Backlash

The debate on sharia comes amid vastly heightened anti-Muslim racism—indeed, some of the opposition to the new tribunals is fueled by this backlash. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Islam was pronounced anathema, its adherents smeared as terrorists. On the streets, women have been humiliated, had their veils ripped off and denied jobs and services. Canadians of Near Eastern descent have been rounded up and detained; others were picked up abroad and thrown into jails in Syria and Egypt to be tortured.

It is noteworthy that for more than a decade Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Ismaili Muslims (who do not use sharia) have been using the Arbitration Act to resolve family-related and other legal disputes, without protest. In contrast, the proposal for sharia courts provoked an immediate outcry. There is a strain here of holier-than-thou "secularism" which is little more than a cover for anti-Muslim bigotry.

There are about 600,000 Muslims in Canada today; more than half live in Ontario. Imperialist subjugation and militarism, grinding poverty, wars of conquest and depredation from Somalia to Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan: the bloody workings of imperialism have driven untold millions to flee their homes in search of a better life or simply to stay alive. But especially with the intense anti-Muslim backlash that erupted after September 11, attacks on Near Eastern and African immigrants here, as in the U.S. and Europe, have sharply increased as civil rights are shredded along with jobs and social services. Immigrants are the last hired and first fired, and this hits immigrant women hardest. Without access to jobs, services and language classes, many immigrant Muslim women live in intense isolation.

The growth of women's oppression and the influence of religion can be seen in the increasingly common appearance of the veil among women and young girls. For a minority, this is not only an expression of women's subordination, but a twisted kind of defiance of anti-Muslim racism. Less visible is the barbarism of female genital mutilation or the anguish of forced marriages. In fact, these things are aggravated by restrictive Canadian immigration laws.

At a Toronto June 26 anti-sharia meeting, a high school teacher reported that many teachers are seeing their young students suddenly spirited out of the country, only to return married to a much older man in order to secure him permanent resident status. A young girl's dowry is her citizenship. Similarly, immigrant women are trapped in abusive relationships if their status depends on their husbands. Attempts to flee or separate legally mean almost certain deportation. We demand full citizenship rights for anyone who makes it here. This is not only crucial to the lives of immigrants, but would undercut the basis for practices that are so detrimental to women.

Religious Bigotry and the Canadian State

Contrary to liberal mythology, Canada is not a secular state; separation of church and state is partial at best. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms invoked by some opponents of sharia states that "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law"—not exactly a statement of human liberation. Actually, Canada was founded on the destruction of the pre-existing aboriginal societies, the subjugation of the Québécois with the triumph of the British over the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and as a reactionary British redoubt against the American Revolution. To this day Parliament opens with prayers as the politicians seek guidance from the Christian god in their main endeavor—the business of rewarding their friends and robbing working people.

For much of Canada's long history of religious bigotry, anti-Catholic reaction was dominant, and it was always bound up with anti-French prejudice. The 19th century was marked by vicious campaigns and riots against impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants fomented by predominantly Protestant rulers. Orange Ontario was deeply anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. Run by the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Orange Order, Toronto of the 1920s and 1930s was known as the "Belfast of Canada." Here and on the Prairies, the Orange Order was heavily interpenetrated with the Ku Klux Klan terrorists whose specialty was anti-Catholic cross-burnings. After World War II, Catholic immigrants from southern European countries were the targets. Today Muslims (and Hindus and Sikhs) have largely displaced Catholics and Jews as the scapegoats of choice.

Mumtaz Ali thanks today's official government policy of multiculturalism for making sharia courts possible, declaring that "the Ontario government is the most enlightened in the world. This is the multiculturalism of my friend Pierre Trudeau" (Toronto Star, 22 May). Multiculturalism was inaugurated in 1971 by Trudeau in part to corral "ethnic" votes for the Liberals and as a wedge against growing support for nationalism in Quebec. The carefully crafted hype is that it is an anti-racist liberal reform—an official expression of tolerance of all cultures. Right-wing racists inveigh against it for just that reason.

In reality, though, multiculturalism, which is designed to encourage the "voluntary" cultural and racial segregation of the population, has served to ghettoize immigrant communities. Hugely successfully at buttressing the federal Liberals, with pork-barrel grants flowing to numerous cultural organizations, it has served to tie a layer of petty-bourgeois immigrant "community leaders" to the government's purse-strings. It has in turn been a powerful conservatizing force for policing immigrants and maintaining social peace.

By actively discouraging the integration of immigrant communities, the bourgeoisie has also helped to foster racism and chauvinism against non-white populations. For the ruling class, confronted with an increasingly multiracial working class, this policy has served to divide working people.

Capitalist immigration policy is always subject to the labour requirements of the economy. During periods of economic growth, the capitalists bring in workers from other countries as a source of cheap labour. In a downturn, they whip up racism against foreign-born workers, scapegoating them for the capitalist crisis. But the ruling class always manipulates racial and ethnic antagonisms among workers as a means of weakening their ability to struggle against the bosses' attacks. Struggling for class unity, workers must oppose all the racist anti-immigration laws and fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Immigrant workers are not helpless pawns, but form a vital part of capitalist production in this country—they represent a core of the social power which is key to successful labour struggle and the overturning of the capitalist order.

Religion, the Family and Women's Oppression

Karl Marx was right when he asserted that "Man makes religion, religion does not make man." He concluded:

"The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

—"Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law," 1844

Islam has no monopoly on religious savagery, and the subjugation of women is not unique to it. For years the Catholic Church has used its power in the state-funded separate school system to poison children with anti-abortion and anti-gay bigotry. The religious lunatics who spent the 1990s trying to murder abortion doctors in Canada and the U.S. were certainly not Muslim. The Catholic Church still does not allow divorce or contraception. In Jewish law the Beis Din system is a lot like sharia, intensely anti-woman. For example, women may not give testimony or sit in judgement of others; once married, women are essentially the property of their husbands.

Institutionalized religions are key to reinforcing women's oppression, but they are not its origin. The institution of the family—today fashioned to serve the needs of capitalist class rule—is the main source of women's oppression. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in the late 19th century, Friedrich Engels explained that the monogamous patrilineal family "is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity." The family is the vehicle for transmitting property from one generation to the next, and the mechanism for raising new generations of workers. Bourgeois family law is thus tightly bound up with defense of private property, and women's inequality is always reflected in the legal and social codes of every society.

The entire fabric of Muslim family law, the subordination of women through polygamy, the bride price, dowry, the veil—these are not simply the "bad ideas" of an evil caste of mullahs. In origin, they were a means of enforcing property rights and attendant mechanisms of social control in a pre-capitalist society.

In the eight and ninth centuries, when Europe was in the Dark Ages, Muslim civilization was at its zenith. Islam gave us algebra, Arabic numbers; it preserved medical knowledge and many other key inventions. In the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century the Muslims and Jews were driven out of Spain by the crown and Catholic Church. Thousands upon thousands of books of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and poetry were burned.

Christianity and Judaism, in their many variants, also preach stifling moral codes meant to uphold the patriarchal family. But sections of Christianity and Judaism, also with roots in pre-capitalist society, had to conform with rising industrial capitalism and the bourgeois nation-states where they existed. The radical democratic principles of the Enlightenment were the ideological reflection of historic material advances over a backward, feudal society. But as a religion, Islam has not had to adapt, largely because it remains rooted in those parts of the world where imperialist penetration has reinforced social backwardness as a prop to its domination.

Capitalism came belatedly to these countries, with the European colonizers who manipulated and nurtured all that was backward and retrograde, while suppressing class struggle. And today among concentrations of immigrants in the Western imperialist countries, capitalist rule has reinforced anti-woman practices, from the barbarism of female genital mutilation to veiling to arranged marriages.

The Western imperialists fulminate against Islam. But it was these imperialist exploiters who fuelled the growth of political Islam over the last half century. In their drive to destroy the Soviet Union—the state that emerged from the victorious 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—the imperialists allied with indigenous forces of social reaction to act as a bulwark against godless Communism and the Soviet Union, and to ensure the continued flow of superprofits.

Afghanistan is the clearest example. In the late 1970s when a modernizing Afghan government moved to implement modest reforms for women (lowering the bride price, instituting education) the tribal mujahedin erupted in insurrectionary violence. To protect its borders from the fundamentalist threat, already backed by the CIA, in late 1979 the Soviet Red Army entered Afghanistan at the invitation of the left-nationalist government in Kabul. The U.S. government spent billions to fund the mujahedin's holy war against the Soviet Union in what was the biggest CIA operation in history. We declared "Hail Red Army in Afghanistan," and called to extend the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples, especially the terribly oppressed women.

But this was not the Soviet Union of Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky, but a degenerated workers state headed by a bureaucratic caste intent on conciliating the imperialist order. Criminally, instead of fighting to win, in 1989 the Soviets withdrew, paving the way for the victory of Washington's brutal religious fanatics—including the future Taliban—and opening the door to counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself. The Taliban, Osama Bin Laden—this whole reactionary crew is literally the Frankenstein monster created by the imperialists in their war on the Soviet Union.

Islam and the Left

The International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada (ICAS)—animated by the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WCPI)—is lobbying the government to remove family law from the Arbitration Act, which would remove the legal sanction for religion-based tribunals. But the website for this campaign ( has also published blatantly anti-immigrant, pro-imperialist poison without criticism or comment.

One such article, "Shari'a: A Threat to the Canadian Society" by Elka Enola of the Humanist Association of Toronto (HAT), projects a demented three-step scenario which culminates in a future where "Muslims now outnumber Christians, and the majority rule of democracy is turned on its head, as the majority Muslims make Shari'a the law of the land." Elsewhere, Enola raves that when leftists support "Palestinians against Israel," they are "siding with Political Islam" (HAT Newsletter, May/June 2004).

The ICAS website also features a statement, "Canada Attacked by Political Islam!," demanding that the racist Canadian government include as a condition on the Canadian immigration form that "the applicant will protect Canadian Secular Democracy." It further demands that the government require "all records of sermons and lectures in all religious gatherings, conferences, seminars etc [be submitted] to authority." This is not secularism but a loyalty oath that would ban some Muslim immigrants and other people as well, and a call on the government to directly police religion. It all reeks of the racist Clash of Civilizations garbage of reactionary writer Samuel Huntington, which pits a supposedly progressive "western civilization" against "backward Islam." It is the banner of imperialist "democracy" which has brought devastation to Afghanistan and now Iraq.

The racist Canadian ruling class simultaneously attacks Muslims as terrorists while nurturing the most repressive and conservative forces within the Muslim community. There is no real contradiction here: both are mechanisms for reinforcing the grip of capitalism through scapegoating and regimenting immigrant communities. Working people should oppose sharia courts and all other state-sanctioned religious interference in public institutions. The protests against sharia law must denounce Canada's brutally racist "justice" system and, especially, the government's war on immigrants.

While the Canadian left and feminists have been largely silent in the sharia debate, the Trotskyist League has intervened actively against the new sharia courts. We addressed the June 26 ICAS public meeting and we have publicized a planned protest against the sharia courts at the Ontario Legislature on September 8. Our letter urging left, gay/lesbian and other groups to mobilize for the protest made clear that opposition to sharia must be inseparable from opposition to the anti-Muslim racist backlash.

The abdication of much of the left reflects a long-standing division between opponents of the Islamic regime in Iran, and those who capitulate to it. Going back to the 1979 "Islamic Revolution"—a bloody disaster for women, workers and the left—many so-called leftists have willfully misidentified political Islam with anti-imperialism. For example, the International Socialists (I.S.) tailed the forces of Islamic reaction, running headlines like "The form—religion, The spirit—revolution" (Workers Action, February 1979).

In 1998, this line-up was reprised when the Trotskyist League, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and others joined with the WCPI to drive out representatives of the murderously anti-woman Iranian government from a Toronto International Women's Day fair. Scandalously, the I.S. and others opposed this! More recently, the IWD feminists in Toronto have barred the WCPI from their meetings and from having display tables at IWD fairs—explicitly because these feminists viewed the WCPI's protest against the stoning, torture and imprisonment of women in Iran as a disruption that might "offend" Muslims.

Some leftists justify their reluctance to criticize Islamic reaction by pointing to the fact that the imperialists are waging a brutal "war on terrorism" through military conquest, occupations and the round-up of Near Eastern immigrants. Others push a form of "cultural relativism," a theoretical justification for accepting the horribly oppressive status quo in the Third World which actually mirrors the right-wing "clash of civilizations" cant. In fact, Islam has long been an invaluable tool for imperialist oppression and exploitation both of immigrants at home and neocolonial subjects abroad. That the government here is allowing Islamic sharia courts in the midst of an anti-Muslim backlash underscores that the fundamental divide in society is not between religions or nationalities, but between the classes.

The WCPI correctly opposes sharia law, both in Iran and in Canada. Yet, lacking a working-class axis, they end up seeing the imperialist governments—far greater enemies of the world's working class than the ayatollahs of impoverished neocolonial Iran—as potential allies. In fact, the anti-clerical reformists of the WCPI foster terrible illusions in "democratic" Western imperialism.

For example, the WCPI backs the French government's racist campaign to ban girls from wearing the headscarf in schools. Part of a broader crusade by the French rulers against the country's large North African Muslim population, this is also a gross act of state interference with personal religious belief. Our comrades of the Ligue trotskyste de France sharply oppose the campaign for state bans on the veil, and further point out that expelling girls from school for wearing it can only lead to greater isolation and oppression for them, reinforcing their religious beliefs.

For many years the WCPI has campaigned for imperialist governments in Europe and Canada to close Iranian embassies in their countries. This demand has been taken up by the coordinator of the anti-sharia campaign, Homa Arjomand, who recently wrote to the Canadian government, demanding that it "break all its diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime" (WPI Briefing, 27 July). The WCPI has also repeatedly called on the UN to intervene on behalf of the oppressed in the Near East. With such positions, they lend credence to the imperialists' democratic pretensions and call on them to act as cops of the world. Their willingness to accommodate pro-imperialist forces in their anti-sharia campaign has not fallen from the sky.

For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Any perspective for the liberation of women must start with revolutionary opposition to the imperialist rulers, who exploit workers at home while subjugating and plundering entire countries in the Third World. It is necessary to generate the resources to change the material conditions of life, and that can only come from the expropriation of the capitalist class. Looking ahead to the socialist revolution, in Origin of the Family Engels wrote:

"With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate of not."

When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, they sought to carry out this program. But the resources of the new workers state, devastated by imperialist war, famine and civil war, were agonizingly slender, and this imposed harsh limits on the measures they could take. Even so, health care and education were free, and there was child care in workplaces. The Bolsheviks' earliest measures were directed at the emancipation of women. Unlike both modern bourgeois law and religious tradition, they made marriage and divorce simple matters of civil registration. The welfare of children was the responsibility of the state. They did away with the repressive laws against homosexuality and abortion.

How do we get to the revolution that alone can bring the liberation of women? And how do we address the conditions of oppressed immigrant women in this country who are caught between the stifling restrictions of their own communities and the racist walls erected by Canadian capitalist society? The working class alone has the power to sweep away this violent, exploitative system. Workers must be won to the understanding that in championing the rights of women and immigrants, they advance the interests of the class as a whole. This means opposing every hint of discrimination against people for their religion or ethnicity, while exposing the pernicious influence of all religions. It means taking up the struggle for free 24-hour child care and free quality health care as measures crucial to addressing the special oppression of women.

The Trotskyist League is a small revolutionary Marxist organization, and within our capacities, we seek to give leadership to working-class struggles through the force of our program, as part of the essential struggle to forge a multiracial revolutionary vanguard party. As our comrade told the audience at the June 26 meeting against sharia law:

"As fighters for women's liberation, we oppose the introduction of the sharia laws. We are also for the separation of church and state, to which end we also oppose [the law's] application to other religions, be it Catholic, Jewish or Ismaili....

"I am a trade unionist; we believe the way forward lies in mobilizing the integrated unions to fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and their families and for the full integration of women into the workforce. The brutal oppression of women is fundamental to the capitalist system and must be replaced by the rule of the working people."