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Can tolerant Canada tolerate sharia?

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Their burnished domes rise high above the adjacent pizza parlors and drab strip malls, like beacons of sanctity in this largely secular country.

But the peaceful facades of the dozens of mosques in Canada's most populous province belie the public rancor that has been stirred up over the use of sharia, or Islamic law, by Ontario's Muslims.

Muslims here, supported by a 1991 provincial law, have been using sharia to mediate legal disputes, such as divorce and child custody. But in the spring, after a Muslim group proposed creating a formalized tribunal, what had been going on quietly for more than a decade became front-page fodder and led to a government review of the law. A report is expected next month.

While no one here expects the increasing use of sharia to lead to some of the more radical rulings associated with Islamic law - stonings or amputations - critics worry that the rights of women are being sacrificed for the sake of multiculturalism.

"It's shocking to see the seeds of an Islamic republic being sown here in Canada," one young woman shouted to vociferous applause at a recent Toronto rally, organized to denounce the practice of sharia in Ontario. "Sharia doesn't work anywhere else in the world. Why does the government believe it will work here?"

Sharia is a centuries-old Islamic system of justice based on the precepts of the Koran. It's legally used by religious scholars and imams in Ontario to mediate a narrow range of disputes - from clashes over property and inheritances, to matters in marriage and divorce.

Proponents say it is the only way Muslims can live true to their faith. Critics see it as an unsettling expansion of a system that stones women and hangs apostates in the street.


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