Workers Vanguard No. 861

6 January 2006


Canada: I.S. Upholds Anti-Woman Religious Courts

Sharia "Socialists"

Women and Revolution Pages

The following article is reprinted from Spartacist Canada No. 147 (Winter 2005/2006), newspaper of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste, Canadian section of the International Communist League.

What kind of “socialists” would actively back state-sanctioned Islamic sharia courts? That is exactly what the International Socialists (I.S. [affiliated with the British Socialist Workers Party]) are doing in taking up the cudgels for what they call, aping the language of the Christian right, “faith-based arbitration.” It is mind-boggling that self-styled leftists would champion a campaign by the most reactionary, anti-woman forces in the Muslim community to have their religious law backed by the authority of the capitalist state.

Sharia is the 1,300-year-old body of Muslim canon law that regulates every aspect of life. In Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, it is synonymous with barbaric punishments such as “honour” killings and stoning “adulterers” and homosexuals to death. 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 arbitrarily divorced by the husband simply repeating three times, “I divorce you.” In many countries, sharia codifies the Koranic strictures dictating the seclusion of women. The head-to-toe chador (veil), for example, is a walking prison, physically excluding women from society. It embodies the submission of women to men and their imposed inferior status. We solidarize with the countless women who have sought to escape this tyranny, whether in the Muslim world or the imperialist centers.

In late 2003, the Canadian Society of Muslims announced plans to establish sharia courts in Ontario that would function under the 1991 Arbitration Act introduced by the then NDP [social-democratic New Democratic Party] government. Like the Ontario Jewish rabbinical courts, the Beit Din, sharia courts would deal with family law—marriage, divorce, inheritance—where the subjugation of women is most brutally enforced. Decisions would be binding and upheld by the provincial courts unless coercion was shown. This plan sparked a huge outcry, including internationally, and after over a year of protest, on September 11 Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty announced, “There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario.” His government has now introduced a law to that effect.

The plan for sharia courts with official legal standing was an outrage that could only deepen the isolation and oppression of Muslim women. As revolutionaries, atheists and fighters for women’s liberation, we were unalterably opposed to them from the start. We wrote in Spartacist Canada (No. 142, Fall 2004):

“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.”

Furious they can no longer claim the state’s blessing for their rulings, various mullahs and rabbis howled in protest. Joining this reactionary outcry, the I.S. sneered against “abstract ‘secularism’” and trumpeted their participation in a “spirited demonstration” in defense of the woman-hating sharia tribunals (Socialist Worker, 8 October 2005).

The I.S.’s pro-sharia friends include the arch-Zionists of B’nai Brith, who also denounced the government’s decision. They want to buttress support for the Beit Din and are happy to see Muslims, especially women, ghettoized and oppressed by “their” religious leaders. In Orthodox Judaism, where women’s oppression is profound, a divorce is only final when the husband has served the get (writ of divorce) and it is endorsed by a rabbinical court. Should no get be served, the woman cannot be divorced. She is left in a horrific state of limbo known as agunah, a Hebrew word meaning “chained woman.” As columnist Anna Morgan wrote, “When asked to comment on the fate of the agunah, one Orthodox woman told me, ‘Are you crazy? If I speak out, no one will allow their children to marry mine’” (Toronto Star, 9 October 2005). The anti-sharia campaign helped crack this code of silence, putting a spotlight on the suffering of women at the hands of the rabbinical courts. It is very good that religious tribunals will no longer have legal standing in family law.

Of course, McGuinty’s Liberals and their ilk are hardly champions of women’s liberation. In racist capitalist Canada, Muslim women already face multiple hurdles. Often denied access to jobs, services and language classes, many live in intense isolation, making it very difficult to break out of the web of religious oppression. Those who do so face the threat of brutal coercion or are ostracized, cut off from family, friends and community. The imams already dispense “justice” from the mosques, but if sharia had become part of the state’s legal machinery, the vicious, age-old, anti-woman practices which it codifies would have been legitimized and the hold of religion increased.

I.S. Gets Religion

The I.S.’s defense of sharia rests on a stunning apology for Islamic reaction. The September 24 Socialist Worker featured an article (first posted on by Richard Fidler praising former NDP attorney general Marion Boyd’s government-commissioned report in favour of sharia. With contemptible indifference to women’s oppression, Fidler positively quotes Boyd’s statement that “There is no evidence to suggest that women are being systematically discriminated against as a result of arbitration of family law issues.”

This prettification of Islam was embraced by Socialist Worker editor Paul Kellogg. “All religions are contradictory,” Kellogg averred, “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?” (8 October 2005). This is a cruel mockery of the brutal reality of women’s oppression. For women from huge swathes of Asia, Africa and the Near East, it is not a matter of who does the cleaning, but of the right to be considered fully human, not a chattel of first father, then husband.

Contrary to Kellogg, the contradiction in religion lies in the fact that human beings created religions, only to have their creations rule over them like a Frankenstein monster. It is obscene to have to debate with ostensible Marxists whether clerical reaction should be supported. Marxists regard all modern religion as an instrument of bourgeois reaction that defends exploitation and befuddles the working people.

Not so the I.S. Echoing the outraged mullahs and rabbis, Kellogg declares that “These third-party arbitrations have always existed, especially in religious communities, where it is often to the Priest, Minister, Iman [sic] or Rabbi that people turn when confronted with family or marital issues.” The I.S. accepts this domination, seeking to give it legal force.

Down With Anti-Muslim Racism!

The I.S. invokes the ruling class “war on terror” to cover its embrace of sharia. But for the racist Canadian rulers there is no contradiction between attacking Muslims as terrorists and nurturing the most oppressive forces in the Muslim community. Both reinforce the grip of capitalism by scapegoating and regimenting immigrants.

This is the central purpose of official “multiculturalism.” Promoted heavily by the Liberal Party as an expression of tolerance for all cultures (which is why right-wingers hate it), multiculturalism is designed to encourage the “voluntary” cultural and racial segregation of the population, ghettoizing immigrants while elevating petty-bourgeois “community leaders.” It is thus a conservatizing force for policing minorities and maintaining social peace. But the Muslim community, like the rest of society, is class-divided. The struggles of immigrant and other minority workers for rights, jobs and unions necessarily require throwing off the debilitating grip of religious and other community leaders.

Socialist Worker smears the opposition to sharia as “involving more than a hint of anti-immigrant and racist prejudice” and claims that leftist opponents of sharia are “lining up with reactionaries.” To be sure, some right-wing journalists and politicians seized on the sharia debate to inflame anti-Muslim racism. But Marxists’ opposition to sharia (and all religious law) is conditioned not by the character of others who may oppose it, but by what advances the class interests of the proletariat.

Moreover, the central organizers of the protests against official sharia courts in Ontario were not pro-imperialist reactionaries, but women leftists from the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WCPI)—refugees from the bloody mullah regime in Iran. The No Religious Arbitration Coalition, which includes the Ontario Federation of Labour and many women’s organizations, explicitly condemns Islamophobia and opposes all legally binding religious arbitration, not only Muslim. We have serious differences with the WCPI, anti-clerical reformists who all too often present the institutions of Western capitalism as potential allies against Islamic reaction (see “Iran and Women’s Liberation,” SC No. 141, Summer 2004). But to paint the campaign against sharia as a reactionary crusade that promotes anti-Muslim racism, as the I.S. does, is a slander in the service of religious reaction.

For Separation of Religion and State

In a September 15 polemic on sharia, Fidler writes: “The traditional left speaks a language that is to a large degree alien to the cultural experience of these huddled masses. It is the language of the white European Enlightenment, redolent in abstract concepts such as ‘separation of church and state’.” This is a bald-faced repudiation of Marxism and its origins. The radical-democratic principles of the bourgeois Enlightenment were the ideological reflection of historic material advances over a backward, feudal society. Hardly an abstraction, the demand for separation of religion and state was vital to this social progress. Today it is an essential part of educating the proletariat as to its true class interests.

Hostile to religion, Marxism seeks to lay bare its deep social roots, which are today to be found, as Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin wrote, in “the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism” (“The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” 1909). In fact, the full separation of religion and state has nowhere been fully realized by the bourgeoisie for the simple reason that religion has great value for the ruling class in its struggle against the proletariat.

Religious wars, persecution and obscurantist oppression are endemic to all religions and all serve to buttress the patriarchal family, ruling class authority and the particular sexual and moral codes of their respective societies. The institution of the family, today fashioned to serve the needs of capitalist class rule, is the main source of women’s oppression. It is the mechanism for transmitting property from one generation to the next and raising new generations of workers. Family law is tightly bound up with defense of private property and women’s inequality is always reflected in the legal and social codes of society.

Anti-woman bigotry for the glory of God marks Christianity and Judaism as much as Islam. Just look at the Catholic Church’s crusade against abortion rights, the attacks on evolution and science by the Protestant right, or the anti-Palestinian barbarism of the theocratic Zionist state of Israel. But while in general Christianity and Judaism had to conform with rising industrial capitalism and the emergence of bourgeois nation-states, Islam did not, largely because it remains rooted in those parts of the world where imperialist penetration has reinforced social backwardness as a prop to its domination.

Today the imperialists fulminate against Muslim fundamentalism, but for decades they consciously fuelled the growth of Islamic reaction. In their drive to prevent social revolutions and destroy the Soviet Union—the state that emerged from the victorious October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—the imperialists allied with indigenous forces of religious and social reaction against godless Communism.

We implacably oppose the imperialist impoverishment and exploitation of the masses of the neocolonial Third World, and defend immigrants from such countries against persecution in the imperialist centers. But we are not cultural relativists who prettify the horribly oppressive status quo in the Near East and elsewhere as quaint “traditions” of the oppressed. Does the I.S., in the name of siding with the Third World oppressed, defend hideous “customs” such as female genital mutilation or suttee, whereby a Hindu widow self-immolates on her husband’s funeral pyre? Modern bourgeois law is an advance over the tribal law of the desert, or the feudal system in which the European populace was once virtually enslaved to temporal lords and priests. Put another way, what regime best facilitates struggle by the working class and oppressed—one based on the European Enlightenment or one based on 7th century religious obscurantism?

I.S.: “God is Great” Socialists

Where does the I.S.’s grotesque embrace of sharia come from? Most immediately, it dovetails with their political conciliation of the Muslim clerics whom they have repeatedly promoted on protests against the Iraq war and occupation. But their portrayal of Muslim fundamentalism as “anti-imperialist” and even “revolutionary” is longstanding. It is a direct outgrowth of their anti-Communist hostility to the former Soviet Union and other societies where capitalism had been overthrown. The I.S.’s British parent group was founded in 1950 by forces breaking from Trotskyism who refused to defend the North Korean and Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers states against a bloody assault by the U.S., Britain and Canada. This was a direct capitulation to the “democratic” pretensions of British imperialism (and its then Labour Party government).

In 1979, joining with the rulers in Washington and Ottawa, the I.S. openly took the side of a CIA-bankrolled Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan that fought to keep women as chattel slaves. They railed against the Soviet Red Army, which had intervened to support a besieged left-nationalist Afghan government that had introduced substantial reforms—like educating girls and reducing the bride price—to this terribly backward country. We Trotskyists declared “Hail Red Army!” and called to extend the gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples, especially women.

Criminally, instead of fighting to win, the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow withdrew the Red Army in 1989, paving the way for the victory of Washington’s brutal religious fanatics. And the I.S. was ecstatic. Hailing “the importance of the defeat of the Russian army,” they claimed this would “spur the struggles of the oppressed nationalities in Eastern Europe” (Socialist Worker, March 1989). By this they meant movements like Poland’s clerical-reactionary Solidarność, another pro-imperialist outfit backed to the hilt by the CIA and Vatican. Solidarność’ rise to power later in 1989 brought devastating capitalist counterrevolution to Poland, which meant anti-Semitism, mass unemployment and the brutal rollback of women’s rights.

The current period of ascendant political Islam opened with the rise to power of ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1978-79. The I.S., like many reformist leftists, criminally lauded the ayatollahs’ “mass movement” which overthrew the blood-drenched U.S.-backed shah, headlining “The form—religion, The spirit—revolution” (Workers Action, February 1979). We declared: “Down with the shah! No support to the mullahs! For workers revolution in Iran!” We put particular emphasis on the struggle for women’s emancipation, declaring “No to the veil!” We were not about to capitulate to Khomeini over the bodies of Iranian women! The I.S.’s support for the “Islamic Revolution”—a bloody disaster for women, the working class and the left in Iran—was a monstrous betrayal.

But the horrors of the Iranian regime didn’t faze this crew. In 1998 the Trotskyist League, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and others joined with the WCPI to drive out representatives of the Iranian regime who had been given a stall at the Toronto International Women’s Day fair, from which they handed out propaganda supporting the stoning of Iranian women. Contemptibly, the I.S. opposed this action, calling such protest “a concession to anti-Islamic scapegoating coming from the ruling class” (Socialist Worker, 25 March 1998). Then, as now, for the I.S. any left-wing protest against anti-woman Islamic reaction can only be racist and pro-imperialist.

Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The Trotskyist League intervened actively in the protests against the proposed sharia courts. We addressed meetings and rallies, and sought to mobilize left, gay and lesbian groups. Throughout, we made clear that the fight against sharia is inseparable from opposition to Canada’s brutally racist “justice” system and, especially, the government war on immigrants and the anti-Muslim racist backlash.

For us, the defense of immigrant rights, including the call for full citizenship rights for everyone in this country, has tremendous significance. A class-struggle fight to defend the rights of Muslims and all immigrants and minorities against the racist capitalist state is in the interest of all the working class. The eradication of racial oppression requires a revolutionary struggle, centered on the power of the proletariat, to uproot capitalism and liberate humanity from poverty and want.

The liberation of women is inextricably linked to the workers’ struggle to build an egalitarian communist society of material abundance. This alone will make it possible to replace the institution of the family, key source of women’s oppression. We are dedicated to freeing workers from religion’s yoke—not strengthening it, as the I.S. would do. As Marx said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…. It is the opium of the people.” In the future socialist society, the Bible and the Koran, with their bloody misogynist proscriptions, will be nothing more than historical artifacts, their power to torment women obliterated by victorious workers revolution.