Last week, Canada’s Parliament passed the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.” Proposed by of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, it will criminalize forced marriages and ban honor killings.
On its face, this law seems to be something that everyone can—and should—get behind. But a closer look at the text of the law, and the rhetoric surrounding its creation and passage, leads us to question its intent and consequences.
In many ways, this law is similar to the “anti-Sharia” bills that appeared (and, in some cases, passed) in numerous American states. Like the anti-Sharia laws, the “barbaric practices” act offers solutions to problems that don’t exist, and focuses unwarranted attention on Muslims while ignoring concerns posed by other groups.
What does the law say? What would it do?
As described in an article in Canada’s National Post, “the bill would raise the marriage age to 16 in addition to adding forced marriage to the Criminal Code. It would also toughen the laws around polygamy, with an eye to preventing immigration by those who engage in the practice and making it easier to deport people who do. And, it would toughen the rules around so-called honour killings, so that the defence of provocation can no longer be used in court.”
Thomas Walkom, a columnist for the Post acknowledged back in November 2014 that “bill S-7 does contain some reasonable elements,” like explicitly outlawing forced marriages, setting the minimum marriage age for 16, and making illegal the transport of a child for the purpose of marriage.
“Had the government stopped there,” Walkom said, “Alexander’s bill would be a reasonable attempt to protect children (mainly girls) from unwanted marriages.”
But the act goes further. Its provisions on honor killings and polygamy take the law from the realm of reasonable legislation to the domain of politicized pandering.
Fixing a non-existent problem
As Robert Fisk notes in the Independent, “these ‘practices’ are already forbidden by Canadian law.” Polygamy has been illegal in Canada for decades, and murder is, well, murder. As Walkom explains, adding a clause to “preclude a defendant in a murder trial from arguing that an insult to family honour provoke his action” would be useful “if Canada’s courts were routinely soft on honour killers. But they aren’t.”
Canada’s single honor killing case, the one cited by Alexander in campaigning for his bill, dealt with an Afghan immigrant father, mother, and son, who killed three of their daughters and their stepmother. All three individuals received life in prison, the harshest sentence in Canada.
According to Canadian immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk, polygamy cases among immigrants seem to be quite rare. He told the Globe and Mail that he has never encountered this problem before.
Ignoring similar issues in non-immigrant communities
The Barbaric Cultural Practices Act focuses explicitly on penalties for immigrant communities practicing polygamy. But this ignores the polygamy issues that exist in Canada’s white community.
A breakaway sect of Mormonism has practiced polygamy for decades in Bountiful, British Columbia—despite the law against it—and the saga still continues over whether polygamist leader Winston Blackmore will face criminal charges. But Blackmore’s community—who are not immigrants—will not be affected by this law.
The effort is also misplaced when it comes to honor killings. Khadijah Kanji of the Noor Cultural Centre said “there is no science behind this legislation,” pointing out that “17 women in Canada have been victims of honour-based killings, compared with hundreds of aboriginal women who have gone missing or been killed by their intimate partners — about whom Ottawa has refused calls for an inquiry.”
Language is important
Critics have not only highlighted the problems in the law’s content, but also its title. The Canadian Bar Association called it “divisive and misleading,” and “inflammatory.” CBA representative Suzanne Costom emphasized that laws’ titles should not “oversimplif[y]” the problem nor “try [to] appeal to people’s emotions.”
The CBA is right. Words like “barbaric” only heighten the public’s sense of fear, and galvanize their support around a law that most of them will not likely read.
What’s also important to note is the words the bill’s drafters chose not to use. The text of the law does not once mention “Muslims” or “Islam.” But the law’s neutral language is a veneer of sorts, one that guards against charges of intent to single out Muslims.
The law didn’t explicitly refer to Muslims because it didn’t need to. With its references to “barbaric” “honor killings,” “polygamy,” and “forced marriages,” the public already knew what group these measures were focused on. The bill plays into common misperceptions that these issues are solely Islamic, and capitalizes on Canadians’ stereotypes of Muslims and their ignorance about the norms of Islamic practice and culture.
What’s brilliant about this law is that, like the U.S.’s anti-sharia laws, it casts these issues as “Muslim problems” without having to use that language.
Just like the “sharia” scare
This Canadian law is reminiscent of dozens of “foreign law” bans that appeared in U.S. states in recent years. These bills, which often utilized the nondescript language of outlawing the consideration of “foreign law” in American courts, were brought forth by those with a specific concern: Islamic sharia law.
As numerous commentators noted, these bills were needless; there is no threat of sharia law usurping American constitutional law. But the bills were accompanied by efforts to convince the public that sharia was indeed a threat. Even the legislation’s architect, David Yerushalmi, confessed that the purpose of the legislation was less about passage of the law, but was more “heuristic–to get people asking the question, ‘What is Sharia?’” He practically admits what many observers have rightly noted about both the Canadian and American cases: that the primary purpose of these laws is to confirm fears about foreign, immigrant, “Other” Muslims.
Both the “barbaric” and “anti-sharia” law campaigns not only relied on this “Us v. Them climate,” but also fed it by confirming the fear that Muslims were a threat to “our” society.
“Playing the foreign barbarian card”
By focusing on “immigrants” and advancing fears about perceived ‘Muslim problems’ in a climate where Muslims are already distrusted, Canada is playing a political game, rather than legislating constructive policy.
It’s a story we in North America are all too familiar with.