Amira Elghawaby was handed a poisoned chalice.
Now officially Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, Elghawaby has faced an onslaught of attacks since the prime minister announced her appointment. For weeks before she was even on the public service payroll, Elghawaby was smeared, gaslit, and handed down some wildly unrealistic expectations. Worst of all, it would seem she was abandoned by the very people who appointed her.
The firestorm was ostensibly about comments she made in a 2019 opinion piece co-written with former Canadian Jewish Congress CEO Bernie Farber. The pair cited polling data to argue that “a majority of Quebecers” who supported Bill 21 held anti-Muslim views. She apologized for stereotyping Quebecers in those comments earlier this month, but reiterated her view that Bill 21 is discriminatory. It’s the prevalent view within Muslim communities and as some have noted, a representative of those communities who did not share it would hardly be representative.
But before we go on, let’s clarify that Amira Elghawaby’s role did not emerge in a vacuum. Racialized communities — visibly Muslim women in particular — are facing some very real existential threats in this country. Mosques have been shot up. Entire multi-generational families are hunted down in ‘premeditated’ attacks. A woman was recently punched, fell down a flight of escalator stairs, and wound up in a Toronto hospital.
To wear a hijab, turban, or niqab in this country is too often to place a target on your back.
To this end the federal government held a national summit on Islamophobia at the Muslim communities’ request, and it was there that the idea to create a special envoy on Islamophobia was introduced. The role was a direct ask of this government, and the prime minister’s office has said that they only arrived at this selection after an “open, transparent, merit-based” selection process. For the sake of this exercise, let's take them at their word.
Still, the optics aren’t great, particularly when we can see a pattern here.
What an honour it is to officially begin my role as Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia here in the nation's capital, a short car ride from where I grew up in Ottawa’s East end. 1/5 pic.twitter.com/y9EL40kPC9— Amira Elghawaby (@AmiraElghawaby) February 20, 2023
We saw both Canada’s former ministers of democratic reform, Maryam Monsef and Karina Gould, meet a glass cliff (that’s when women get promoted, but see their careers sacrificed to protect the men at the top) after they were delegated the impossible task of betraying Trudeau’s promise for electoral reform. This meant dumping months of productive cross-partisan committee work on the file, and pissing off a good chunk of the country. Both were and are exceptionally bright, capable women. Both were also used to shield the PMO from the inevitable political fall-out.
Similarly, when Canada’s former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould was demoted then resigned, she blew the whistle on an ethics violation that threw the Liberals into months of scandalous turmoil. Wilson-Raybould was violently dragged by her colleagues for weeks. Some wondered aloud whether she knew politics was a “team sport.” Others even called her legal credentials into question.
Anyone could have predicted the firestorm that would engulf Amira Elghawaby, with Bills 21 and 96 now law in Quebec. And given the low value we place on Muslim lives in this country, especially women, you might say she was set up to fail. The poisonous hate she’s facing now, though, really is enough to make anyone “puke.”
There’ve been many calls for Elghawaby to resign, and even for this new role she’s been thrust into to be abolished entirely. Members of both the federal and Quebec legislatures have thrown endless racist and paternalistic shade; and I’ll spare you the details, but the franco pundit class have had especially vile things to say. They’ve questioned everything from Elghawaby’s credibility, to her intelligence, to her personal politics.
At the same time, at this very moment, if Elghawaby wanted to run for office in Quebec, she could not. She could never teach in a Quebec public school classroom.
Legislating white, christian supremacy under the guise of “secularism” has been the Quebec premier’s singular focus for years now. Premier François Legault wears Bills 21 and 96 like jewels in the crown of his political legacy, while enjoying a consistently higher approval rating than most other premiers in the country.
And you know what? I’d be feeling pretty smug if I were Premier Legault right now, too. He’s got an official languages act that is racist and arbitrary; discriminating against the actual original languages of this continent, like Anishinaabemowin. He’s got carte blanche to trample human rights, make a mockery of the Charter, and stonewall national projects. He’s even able to run an endless stream of austerity budgets, ensuring some of the worst public services in the country — the kind that sees women like Joyce Echaquan die because she wasn’t white, and skilled immigrants turned away from good jobs lest they assimilate by learning French overnight.
Still, without fail, Legault leads a province that is so vote-rich and so fickle that come election time the entire country and successive prime ministers look the other way; even shaping entire campaign platforms around Quebecers’ pickiest tastes in policy.
Before the 2019 federal election, leaders fell over themselves to keep Quebec happy, even after a Montreal man approached Jagmeet Singh on the campaign trail demanding he “cut his turban off.” In 2021 when Shachi Kurl asked a perfectly reasonable question of Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet during an election debate — why his party supports Bills 21 and 96 — he blew his top and demanded an apology.
This is one of the most breathtaking, predictable failures of this country: our complicity. We look back in shame, even notice a terrible thing as it’s happening, then just roll over and let it happen anyway. These new Quebec laws and disturbing use of the notwithstanding clause are perfect examples of this. Residential schools were another—where tens of thousands of child abductions and possible murders are known to have taken place, yet there are many who still deny this even happened (some call this hate speech). It is too often these same white Catholic francophones, perhaps with a victim complex, who continue to argue their suffering at the hands of colonialism is comparable. Alberta’s premier recently made similar, if not even stranger arguments, that she’s since been forced to walk back.
Among the few politicians who’ve actually come to Amira Elghawaby’s defense has been the former mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi. In an interview with Global News he said that past discrimination does not justify current discrimination, and that government promotion of “secularism” — which remains grossly ill-defined in Quebec — really just amounts to political pandering.
“Secularism doesn’t mean kicking out certain people from the public square,” he said. “It means welcoming everyone and ensuring that our community is strong enough that what someone wears doesn’t threaten our culture, it only enriches it.”
I reached out to Amira Elghawaby a couple weeks ago for her comment on all this. She politely declined, only saying that she was waiting until she'd had a chance to actually start the role, and until she’d “had some time to think.”
I’d be surprised if Elghawaby ever speaks to the media again in her capacity as Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia. For one, it’s a liability for the PMO that appointed her, but more obviously: after the way she’s been treated, who would? What could she stand to gain by staring down this bleak minefield of white fragility?
My friend Nur is the daughter of Iraqi Marshland refugees. She once told me that to her, being Muslim means leaving each room she enters better than it was when she arrived. But how can she ever do that when she cannot even enter that room in the first place?