The controversy over the Trudeau government’s appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s first representative to combat Islamophobia continues to reverberate.
A significant proportion of francophone Quebeckers see the appointment as an affront – despite Ms. Elghawaby’s apology for a few (perhaps ill-chosen) words she co-wrote in a newspaper opinion piece, four years ago.
Many of those who oppose Elghawaby would probably object to anyone doing the job, in part because they do not see Islamophobia as a serious problem.
Those folks suspect the true purpose of this new position is to provide a platform from which to attack Quebec’s Law 21.
Law 21, readers will remember, is the Legault government’s much-contested measure which prohibits certain Quebec public servants from wearing religious symbols or garb, such as a Jewish kippah or Muslim hijab.
But there are others who do not support Law 21 and who do consider Islamophobia to be a serious challenge, who also take exception to Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment.
One of those is Patrick Lagacé, columnist for the Montreal daily La Presse.
Comparing Elghawaby to Mordecai Richler
Lagacé has accused Elghawaby of applying a double standard to Quebec when it comes to racism and Islamophobia.
The columnist says Elghawaby has exaggerated the extent and virulence of Islamophobia in Quebec, while downplaying the same phenomenon elsewhere in Canada.
Lagacé’s main exhibit is the aforementioned 2019 newspaper opinion piece, which Elghawaby co-wrote with veteran Jewish community activist Bernie Farber.
In that piece, Farber and Elghawaby cite a Quebec Court of Appeals decision which deemed a lower court judge had illegally discriminated against a Muslim woman when he forced her to remove her headscarf.
They then go on to conclude, applying a broad-brush stroke to all of Quebec:
“Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported the [religious garb] ban.”
The poll, which was taken before the Quebec National Assembly had passed Law 21, asked Quebeckers their views of various religious groups. It found that a majority, two thirds, had a positive view of Catholics, but only slightly more than a third, 37 per cent, viewed Muslims positively.
If we assume then that 63 per cent held negative views of Muslims, it is not surprising most of that group supported Law 21. It is a bit surprising 12 per cent did not.
READ MORE: The push for Elghawaby’s removal comes from deep-rooted prejudice
But it might be a bit of a stretch to then suggest Quebeckers are swayed by anti-Muslim sentiment more than other Canadians. The same 2019 Léger poll found majority support for Law 21 in Canada, outside of Quebec.
As well, the poll noted that even in Quebec support for the proposed ban on religious garb was not fervent; it was “soft”. Indeed, a majority, at the time, told the pollsters they would oppose the new law if courts ruled it ran counter to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Again, the poll was taken before the Quebec legislature passed the law. When the National Assembly did so, in June of 2019, it sought to protect Law 21 from court challenges by invoking the Charter’s notwithstanding clause.
For his part, Patrick Lagacé pushes the envelope pretty far in Elghawaby’s case.
He cites her notional lack of nuance in citing the 2019 poll – as well as a couple of deleted tweets questioning Quebeckers’ status as a colonized people – as proof she “hates Quebec”.
The veteran La Presse journalist compares Elghawaby to the late Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, who scandalized Quebeckers when he made reference to Québécois antisemitism of the 1930s in a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker about Quebec’s language laws.
Lagacé says of Richler that he was a “racist who hated francophones and who blackened the nationalist aspirations of Quebec by associating the Parti Québécois with Nazis.”
In the New Yorker series, published many decades ago, Richler did, indeed, venture over the top. And he was highly selective in his references to history.
The Quebeckers who supported fascism and antisemitism in the 1930s exerted little influence compared to the millions of Americans who, during the same period, paid rapt attention to antisemitic demagogue Father Coughlin’s rantings on U.S. radio stations, and the tens of thousands of Americans who thronged to pro-Nazi rallies in New York’s Madison Square Gardens and throughout the U.S.
Quebec has no patent on antisemitism and racism, and it irks Quebec opinion leaders no end to read and hear caricatures of their province as a backwater of ignorance and bigotry.
Having said that, it is unfair for Lagacé to put Amira Elghawaby in the same box as Richler and other similar caricaturists.
Objecting to Law 21 is not anti-Quebec racism
Elghawaby has concerned herself primarily not with the vagaries of public opinion in Quebec but with a piece of legislation – Law 21 – which, to all appearances, does target Muslim women.
The notional purpose of Law 21 is to protect the secular character of the Quebec State. Teachers, police officers, judges and others must not wear visible religious symbols because those public servants incarnate the authority of the State.
As Nathalie Roy, the current Quebec Minister of Culture and Communications, put it: “A person in a position of authority can’t serve God and the State at the same time.”
But in the eyes of Law 21 not all ways of serving God are equally suspect.
The Law is silent on teachers or judges who might hold ardent, or even extreme, religious views, but do not manifest those views through their outward dress.
In addition, it is an uncomfortable truth that few of Law 21’s defenders ever point to people wearing crosses or Jewish kippahs as threats to the secular character of the Quebec State.
They invariably focus on the danger posed by Muslims, especially female Muslims. Further, Law 21’s supporters often associate the mere wearing of a hijab with the most extreme and violent expressions of Islam.
After the Iranian morality police murdered 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not correctly wearing her hijab, in September 2022, one supporter of Law 21 wrote the following to this writer:
“Do you think it’s a good time to suggest it’s important that women wearing symbols of violent misogyny be allowed to teach our children?”
That sort of guilt-by-association is what Amira Elghawaby and Canadian Muslims are up against – but Elghawaby is not without defenders, throughout Canada, and also in Quebec.
Montreal-based philosopher Michel Seymour is a nationalist, an advocate of Quebec sovereignty, and a strong supporter of a secular Quebec.
But Seymour nonetheless signed an open letter supporting Elghawaby, and he has deep, principled objections to Law 21.
Seymour and his colleague Jérome Gosselin-Tapp presented a detailed brief to Quebec’s National Assembly while it was considering what was then Bill 21, in which they said:
“The minister constantly invokes the fact that the Bill is moderate, but is it really moderate to violate fundamental liberties and invoke the notwithstanding clause to avoid court cases …?”
The two philosophers then pointed out that Bill 21 was, in effect, not really interested in achieving a genuinely secular goal, and, further, was biased toward the Christian Catholic traditions and identity of the majority:
“The vast majority of Catholics do not wear any religious symbols – unlike other groups such as Jews, Sikhs and Muslims … As well, the Bill preserves the generous subsidies the Quebec government gives to private, religious schools (almost all Catholic) as well as the equally generous tax benefits it affords to religious institutions (which, as well, are mostly Catholic) …”
The two authors conclude that the secular character (“laïcité”) of the State should
“respect the liberty of conscience and equality of all.”
We must distinguish, they wrote, between institutions being secular and the
“secularisation of society as a whole.”
“Institutions must be secular, but individuals must be free”.
For Amira Elghawaby, as she starts her new and daunting role, those might be words to live by.