Canada's new anti-Islamophobia chief under fire over Quebec comments

Majority of Quebecers swayed not by rule of law, but by 'anti-Muslim sentiment', Amira Elghawaby wrote in 2019 column

Amira Elghawaby's new role will see her serve as 'champion, adviser, expert and representative' of the Muslim community to Canada's federal government. Photo: Stacey Stewart Photography / Star Brand Photography 2019
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Shocking attacks on members of Canada's Muslim community have led Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to appoint the country's first ever special representative on combating Islamophobia — and the new official is already facing challenges.

Even before Amira Elghawaby took office, comments she had made years ago about Quebec resulted in calls for her to step down.

In a 2019 opinion piece, Ms Elghawaby, a journalist and human rights activist, accused residents of Canada’s second-largest province of being Islamophobic, sparking outcry from Quebecers as well as leading politicians.

“Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment,” Ms Elghawaby, along with her co-author Bernie Farber, wrote in The Ottawa Citizen in reaction to a poll showing a high level of support for Quebec's Bill 21.

The bill, which was passed into law in 2019, prohibits public service workers from wearing religious symbols — including the headscarf.

Yves-Francois Blanchet, head of the Bloc Quebecois, a political party with aspirations for an independent state, said Ms Elghawaby’s comments “disqualified” her from the position, while Quebec Premier Francois Legault called her statements “not acceptable”.

Ms Elghawaby — whose new role will see her serve as “champion, adviser, expert and representative” of the Muslim community to the federal government as it addresses issues of Islamophobia and systemic racism — met Mr Blanchet and apologised for her comments.

“I am convinced, and I know and say it, that Quebecers are not racist,” she said, according to The Montreal Gazette.

Muslims across Canada have protested against Bill 21, which the conservative provincial government pitched as legislation promoting secularism. Many, however, viewed it as a targeted attack on the Muslim community that further exposed the deep religious and cultural divisions in the country.

“It's very clear that anti-Muslim sentiment is behind support for Bill 21,” said Miriam Taylor, an independent researcher and special adviser for community outreach at the Association for Canadian Studies who conducted a survey on attitudes and perceptions of the bill.

Quebec has a long and fraught history with religion as well as the rest of Canada. For centuries, Quebec was a predominantly white, French-speaking Catholic society, by nature somewhat insular, as it defined and protected itself against an English-speaking majority.

Originally a deeply religious province where the Catholic Church held a great deal of sway, during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebecers turned away from the church.

But Catholicism still has a strong presence in the province. Crosses dot the hilltops and imposing steeples greet visitors in nearly every town and village.

As waves of immigrants arrived in the 1970s and 80s, the population began to change, causing some in the province to bristle.

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In 2007, the provincial government held a public commission on reasonable accommodation, headed by philosopher Charles Taylor and sociologist Gerard Bouchard. The pair travelled across the province to hear and record citizens' thoughts on the changing landscape.

“The real fear which you felt when you went around the countryside with these hearings, someone said, ‘are they going to change us?’” Mr Taylor recalled in an interview with The National. “There was this terror that the society was going to become unrecognisable.”

The commission eventually released a report which found that there was no real threat to Quebec society, but the authors did suggest a very limited ban on the wearing of religious symbols — something Mr Taylor has since said he no longer supports.

“What I know is since 2005, when I arrived in Canada as an immigrant from the United States, Quebec government after Quebec government successively raised issues and concerns about the headscarf,” said Anver Emon, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto.

“It has been in live topics that government after government has addressed, considered, reviewed and examined.”

Meanwhile, Islamophobia appears to be growing throughout the country.

Hate crimes on the rise

Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, crimes against Muslims jumped by 71 per cent in 2021 and the country has recorded several attacks on Muslims.

In January 2017, 27 year-old Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a mosque in Quebec City and opened fire, killing six worshippers.

The targeted killing of Muslims in a place of worship shocked the country and awakened many to the growing threat of Islamophobia in Canada.

In the summer of 2021, a man drove his vehicle into a Muslim family who were out for an evening walk in London, Ontario, killing four, including a child.

“There is an Islamophobia issue in Canada like everywhere else in the world,” said Hassan Guillet, a former imam who lives in Quebec. “And we need to tackle it.”

Despite criticism from Quebec politicians and some media outlets, Ms Elghawaby enjoys wide support from the Muslim community in Quebec and across Canada.

“Amira is fantastic — she's a lovely, incredible individual and she has a history of being able to speak and recognise multiple angles of an issue,” Mr Emon told The National.

“She understands the significance of Islamophobia as a lived experience in Canada. She also understands that institutionally, our institutions have a role to play.”

Mr Trudeau defended Ms Elghawaby after the backlash, saying that she is the right person for the job.

“She is there to speak for the community, with the community and build bridges,” said Mr Trudeau, according to CBC News. “Her job now is to make sure that she is helping the government and helping everyone move forward in the fight against Islamophobia.”

Updated: February 23, 2023, 11:00 PM