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Photo by Sean Kilpatrick

Treatment of Amira Elghawaby exposes Islamophobia she was hired to address

Proving that irony is dead here, a hijab-wearing immigrant woman of colour was bullied into apologizing for stating facts by Quebec’s whites-only cadre of free-speech warriors.

In an interview concerning the Amira Elghawaby affair on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of how, when Quebec escaped the clutches of the Catholic Church during the Quiet Revolution, it subsequently became a progressive voice advocating for individual rights and freedoms, equity between the sexes and the rights of the LGBTQ community. 

Quebecers simply want everyone to be completely free, he was quoted as saying in La Presse.

There are a few problems here, but I’ll start with the most obvious one: Quebec cannot be lauded as an advocate for individual rights when it passes laws that deliberately curtail individual rights. It cannot be commended as a progressive champion of personal freedoms with laws that openly and defiantly contravene Charter rights to freedom of religion and thought. 

This isn’t complicated: Bill 21 is inherently discriminatory and Muslim women are its primary target. Any law that asks an individual to suspend an aspect of their faith in order to be considered for employment is fundamentally prejudicial and is in flagrant violation of federal rights that are sacrosanct to all Canadians. Point final.

There are secular states the world over that manage to employ observant members of all religions—people who wear the “ostentatious displays of faith” so outlawed by the Quebec government—within their public sectors and have no difficulty maintaining their secularism.  

Moreover, irrespective of what happened in Quebec’s past, it cannot then use that history as an excuse for its present offences. Being the victim of a wrong does not then give one permission to inflict the same wrong upon another, and it bothers me to no end how often it seems that Quebec ethno-nationalists invoke the province’s Grande Noirceur history as an excuse for then trampling the rights of the already marginalized. If anything, Quebec’s cultural and social domination by the Catholic Church ought to have sensitized the population to the inherent evils of large bureaucracies trying to maintain a monoculture. What’s happening here isn’t the enforcement of state secularism, but rather the renewed (and aggressive) insistence on a Quebec monoculture enforced by a provincial government that functions no differently than the Catholic Church did up until about 60 years ago.

It has been said before but there is truly no nice way to talk about Islamophobia or any other kind of racism, particularly when it is of the deeply engrained and systemic variety. Not all Quebecers are racist, true, but Quebec has a demonstrable problem with welcoming and integrating newcomers, particularly if they happen to be visible, linguistic or religious minorities. This is not to say that other parts of Canada, or even Canada as a whole, doesn’t also have its own problems with systemic racism. Canada was founded by Europeans who felt they were so culturally superior to the very people who first lived here that they had no qualms committing genocide. That’s pretty fucking racist! The whole country has a racism problem and for generations we’ve convinced ourselves that the opposite was true just because we didn’t have a civil war over the right to enslave people. 

But let’s be clear here for a moment: Quebec does have a particular problem that needs to be addressed. Quebec passed bills 21 and 96 (and let’s be real: we all know what “there’s too much English in Montreal” is really about. Both laws are equally intolerant and derived from the same inherent prejudice against immigrants and other minority groups). Quebec is the province where shock jocks and populist columnists routinely dehumanize and vilify minorities — the latter is pretty much all that keeps the Journal de Montréal in circulation. Quebec is the place where half of Muslim men, and two-thirds of Muslim women have experienced a hate incident and feel less safe than they did three years ago. This is the province where the immigration minister calls too much immigration ‘suicide’ and who can keep his political career after saying “80% of immigrants don’t work, don’t speak French and refuse to integrate.”

This problem isn’t excusable, though it is understandable, though perhaps not for the reasons Justin Trudeau would like to believe. During the era in which the Catholic Church dominated Quebec society, they preached a social program of self-preservation, one that resisted education, insisted on “traditional” agricultural lifestyles and avoided interaction (let alone integration) with anyone who wasn’t Québécois de souche. An example from my own family’s experience: when my grandmother went to the parish priest in Rivière-du-Loup 70-some-odd years ago to announce she was going to marry my grandfather, the curé asked why he had never heard of my grandfather before. When my grandmother explained that he was from Algeria, the curé was apoplectic, swearing “no African” would be married in his parish church. The priest then tried to convince my grandmother to end the relationship and find a “nice local boy” to marry. This xenophobia runs deep in Quebec and certainly didn’t come to an immediate end with the Quiet Revolution.

Amira Elghawaby was asked to investigate Islamophobia in Canada — the G7 nation with the highest number of hate-motivated killings of Muslims between 2016 and 2021. She had previously expressed her opinion of Quebec’s latent racism problem, and was then bullied into apologizing for her past remarks by Quebec’s “whites only” cadre of free-speech warriors

Were that not evidence enough that irony was dead in Quebec, the proverbial past-tense horse was then bludgeoned some more by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, who decided to hold Amira to a higher standard when he insisted she resign, and that her post be dissolved entirely, as her in-person apology was apparently insufficient.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: You can’t conclusively determine if any one particular province truly does have a racism problem if you’ve already managed to bully  the much-maligned immigrant woman of colour into submitting her resignation, likely tanking the Islamophobia inquiry along with it. Keep in mind: Amira Elghawaby has had to endure a lifetime’s worth of shit in the last week or so and hasn’t even begun receiving her paycheques yet. 

How typical: we make the immigrant woman “prove herself” by forcing her to endure what none of us have the stones for, and to do it for free as well. 

Were this not all bad enough — and it is nauseating — the political establishment in Canada, with very few exceptions (Alexandre Boulerice gets a special commendation for being one of the few politicians to adequately extend some sympathy to Amira Elghawaby and seek to engage in a meaningful conversation with her about the importance of fighting Islamophobia), has essentially decided to line up with the bottom feeding ethno-nationalists who want to put up razor wire walls at Roxham Road. The Quebec Liberal Party, proving there’s still plenty of room to sink even lower into the mire of self-inflicted obsolescence, seemed almost enthusiastic to join in on the all-party dog-piling of Amira Elghawaby. Down there they would find none other that Canada’s most punchable face, Pierre Poilievre, equally advocating an end to Elghawaby’s as yet un-started mandate as “Islamophobia combatter in chief.” Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows, especially when it’s a race to prove just how vile politicians truly are.

I think Alexandre Boulerice is probably right in his argument that this really has nothing to do with Amira Elghawaby (other than that she was presumed to be easy to intimidate in a province where hijab-wearing Muslim women are routinely harassed), and that it has everything to do with Bill 21. The federal party leaders were all conspicuously silent when the bill was first announced, and have by and large avoided addressing one of the most flagrant violations of civil rights in Canadian history. I can imagine anyone investigating Islamophobia in Canada would immediately zero in on a law whose origins and applications are obviously Islamophobic in nature and that have had the effect of making Muslim women in particular newly vilified and marginalized in a society that was generally antagonistic towards them to begin with.

There’s nothing surprising about any of this, least not the cowardice of nearly the entire political class, who would happily scapegoat an immigrant woman of colour rather than take a close look in the mirror, or risk some votes in Quebec. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.