The Quebec government is calling on the federal government to withdraw its support of Amira Elghawaby, the new representative to combat Islamophobia, only four days after she was first appointed.
This comes a day after her attendance at the sixth commemoration of the deadly mosque attack in Quebec City, honouring the six men who were killed in 2017 when a gunman opened fire just before 8 p.m. in the Islamic Cultural Centre in the Sainte-Foy neighbourhood.
Since her appointment on Thursday, the journalist and human rights activist has been pressured to clarify her position on Quebec’s secularism law.
In 2019 she wrote a column for the Ottawa Citizen where she denounced the “anti-muslim sentiment” that surrounded the adoption of Bill 21 — which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his support for Elghawaby on Monday.
Trudeau said that over the years, she has had the opportunity to consider the impacts of various pieces of legislation on the community — part of what makes her role important. He said Elghawaby was appointed because she knows the Muslim community well and can share their concerns.
“She is there to speak for the community with the community and build bridges,” said Trudeau.
“Her job now is to make sure that she is helping the government and helping everyone move forward in the fight against Islamophobia.”
Shaheen Ashraf, a board member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, says Muslim women and women of colour in leadership often face increased scrutiny and criticism.
She herself was “thrilled” by the appointment and said it’s unfair to base an evaluation of Elghawaby on one editorial.
“There is no freedom of speech if these things can happen. [If] you’re asked to resign just because of some comments you made against the Quebec government many years ago,” said Ashraf.
She noted that many Muslim women naturally have strong feelings toward Bill 21 because it directly affects their ability to work in the public sector.
Jean-François Roberge, CAQ minister responsible for the French language, said Elghawaby has not properly apologized for her comments about Quebec. She “seems to be overcome by an anti-Quebec sentiment,” said Roberge.
“All she did was try to justify her hateful comments. That doesn’t fly. She must resign and if she doesn’t, the government must remove her immediately.”
In an interview with CBC’s Quebec AM, Elghawaby said she has nothing to apologize for.
“The article in question actually provides the context in it,” said Elghawaby.
“It was never meant to suggest that my opinion is that the majority of Quebecers are Islamophobic. I don’t believe so. I was merely analyzing the polling numbers … [an] opinion piece is meant to cause people to think, to talk, to reflect.”
Elghawaby was present for the evening ceremony at the mosque alongside Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and the minister of housing and diversity and inclusion, Ahmed Hussen.
Premier François Legault did not attend.
Boufeldja Benabdallah, co-founder and former president of the mosque, thanked politicians for their presence while pointing to the premier’s absence at a ceremony which included reflections on the problem of Islamophobia.
“We have just one thing to ask of you,” said Benabdallah, referring to Genevieve Guilbault, CAQ deputy premier. “Talk to Mr. Francois Legault and tell him: ‘You have to come.'”
Guilbault took to the podium and said Legault wished he could be there.
On Monday, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet requested an “urgent meeting” with Elghawaby, saying her actions were “more divisive than unifying.”
The Liberal opposition critic for immigration, francization and integration, Monsef Derraji, agreed that it is not good to starting a new mandate with the declaration that Quebec has an issue with Islamophobia.
The Parti Québécois is not calling for Elghawaby’s resignation, but Joël Arseneau, the Parti Québécois transportation critic, says they are questioning Trudeau’s decision.
“She’s made several declarations showing prejudice against Quebec society and we don’t think it’s a good start for someone who wants to bring people together,” said Arseneau.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for Quebec Solidaire, said it’s important to fight against racism in an inclusive way and the statements Elghawaby made were “hurtful to Quebecers.”
“That being said, the Legault government has done nothing — nothing in four-and-a-half years — to fight Islamophobia so I think they should look at themselves and make a little more effort to work against Islamophobia because it’s not an issue on which they are very credible,” said Nadeau-Dubois.
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