There are few characterizations that inflame people more than being called racist.
It’s an accusation that apparently was so “hurtful” to Quebec’s government that it didn’t hesitate to call for the resignation of Amira Elghawaby, the newly appointed federal representative to combat Islamophobia — immediately after relatives and political leaders gathered to mark the anniversary of a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque in 2017.
“I can’t believe that Mr. Trudeau says he supports her 100 per cent after all that she said, after all the contempt she has shown towards Quebec,” Premier François Legault said Tuesday. “In keeping her in the job, Mr. Trudeau endorses the contempt towards Quebecers.”
Quebec interim Liberal leader Marc Tanguay said, “Elghawaby has to take the full measure of how insulting and factually wrong she was for saying this. Her statements about Quebec, about the Quebec nation, are completely unacceptable. We are asking for her resignation.”
After meeting with Elghawaby on Wednesday, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet rejected her apology, demanding that Trudeau fire her for what he believes to be discrimination against Quebecers. He called her comments “ignorance … to the desire for secularism in Quebec.” He went further still, demanding that Trudeau get rid of the position altogether.
Elghawaby’s comments that have provoked such aggressive backlash were made in a 2019 opinion piece that she co-wrote with Bernie Farber from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, where she rightly called out the deep anti-Muslim sentiment that drove the passing of Bill 21, the province’s state secularism law that prevents civil servants in Quebec from wearing religious symbols while on the job. Her assertions did not come out of nowhere — they were based on a poll of 1,212 Quebecers that concluded that anti-Muslim sentiment was the main motivation for those who supported the legislation.
Meaning: Elghawaby was being asked to apologize for the genuine dislike most Quebecers harbour towards Muslims and Islam. Does that mean most Quebecers are Islamophobic? No. But most Quebecers sampled in the poll she used to substantiate her argument certainly were.
Elghawaby also made the case that the legislation inadvertently normalizes and encourages racist rhetoric, which is exactly what happened after the reigning Coalition Avenir Québec criticized her new appointment. As Montreal-based journalist Christopher Curtis noted, “Islamophobia is so prevalent in our discourse that Premier François Legault had to disable comments on his tweet commemorating the mosque shooting Sunday because people wouldn’t stop posting racist replies.”
The Quebec politicians’ words shamefully politicized a memorial for one of Canada’s worst terrorist attacks. Take a moment to imagine how the relatives of the six mosque victims felt, knowing that their own premier still denies the existence of Islamophobia.
It’s unfathomable how politicians can cling on to this denial, despite the shooter being pronounced by the Quebec Superior Court Justice who sentenced him as someone whose crimes “were truly motivated by race, and a visceral hatred toward Muslim immigrants.”
Why do they refuse to consider those French-Canadians who are most impacted by Bill 21?
Like the third-grade teacher who was offered a job at an elementary school, but then was told she had to move to a position outside the classroom because she wears a hijab? Or the Muslim women who have had their hijab ripped off? How do these actions epitomize those lofty principles — “equality of all citizens” and “freedom of conscience and religion” — that Bill 21 professed to support in the first place?
For all the emphasis the government put on respecting freedom of speech, it was almost laughable to hear Legault attempt to silence Elghawaby by calling for her resignation (and continuing to, even after her second apology on Thursday).
It’s important to recognize, too, that bigotry can manifest in different forms, playing out in different ways across Canada. Racism doesn’t always rear its ugly head in the face of nonsensical legislation or a pig’s head being left at the doorstep of a mosque (as it was at the Quebec City Islamic Centre one year before the shooting). The term “Islamophobia” has been challenged in conversations among Iranian Canadians in light of repeated attacks against Iranian mosques and community members across the country by rogue “freedom” activists who are riding on the coattails of far-right xenophobes with deep Islamophobic sentiments.
The criticism of Islam that is levied by these activists — which has manifested as shouting anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs in Farsi like “I want to shit on your Kaaba” and assaulting and threatening people as they enter and leave mosques — is connected to fierce political opposition to Iran’s state-sponsored violence. But why should mosques and Iranians here be subjected to abuse and threats, especially when the allegations that are often leveled against them (of being supported and affiliated with Tehran in some way) are virtually never proven?
As Stephen Brown, chief executive officer of The National Council on Canadian Muslims, aptly said after several visible Iranian Muslim women reported being assaulted at Iran solidarity rallies: “It’s really important for people to understand that being a practicing Muslim doesn’t mean that you support the government of Iran.”
This was a point that Elghawaby also understood and fearlessly highlighted last October on Twitter, where she shared her support for Iranians protesting their government’s repression of women, adding that “no one should ever be compelled to wear or remove a hijab… Yet, this shouldn't permit some people to act on Islamophobic attitudes.”
It’s this kind of nuanced intra-community understanding that a federal representative to combat Islamophobia needs in order to bring real change to the often quiet climate of bigotry that exists throughout Canada, in all its institutions.
But clearly, this is a moot point for Quebec politicians like Tanguay, whose tweets on Thursday after her second apology screamed of irony: “The fight against Islamophobia is essential. The person responsible for assuming the functions of special adviser in charge of the fight against Islamophobia must be unifying, inspire the confidence of all and ensure that bridges are created.”
There is only one side here that is actively working against the unity of all Canadians, and that is Quebec’s legislature.