Canada’s first-ever representative to combat Islamophobia, Amira Elghawaby, recently began her official tour to address the issue of Islamophobia in the country. The tour started in London, Ontario, where a Muslim family was killed in a tragic hate-motivated attack in June 2021. This tour comes after Elghawaby faced controversy and backlash for comments made in a 2019 opinion piece.
In the opinion piece, co-authored with Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Elghawaby and Farber criticized Quebec’s controversial Bill 21. This bill bans provincial public servants from wearing religious symbols, such as hijabs. They argued that the majority of Quebecers were swayed by anti-Muslim sentiment, rather than the rule of law. Elghawaby eventually apologized for her remarks after Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and other politicians called for her removal from the position, accusing her of anti-Quebec sentiments.
Despite the controversy, Elghawaby has taken up her role as the country’s representative against Islamophobia with determination and a commitment to foster understanding and address the concerns of Canada’s Muslim communities. Her tour began in London, Ontario, where she met with approximately 200 members of the local Muslim community. They discussed the support they received in the wake of the attack on the Afzaal family and the progress London is making, including the recent hiring of a Muslim liaison officer.
However, there were also stories of lingering fear in the community, following the deadly truck attack that killed Yumna Afzaal, her parents Madiha Salman and Salman Afzaal, and her grandmother Talat Afzaal. Elghawaby shared that she had met Muslim women who expressed their fear of loud sounds while walking in the streets. One young woman even told her that her son, still terrified by loud noises, would push his mother into the sidewalk and away from the road.
Despite her earlier apology, Elghawaby reiterated her concerns about Bill 21 during her visit to London. She stated that the bill discriminates against people who wear visible religious symbols, disproportionately impacting Muslim women who wear the headscarf. She vowed to continue calling out problematic legislation and addressing the ways in which certain policies in Canada may negatively impact Muslim communities.
Elghawaby’s tour will continue with visits to other communities across the country in the coming months. Her role involves influencing the federal government to ensure that Islamophobia does not infiltrate Canadian legislation. She declared her readiness to have difficult conversations and confront the issues that affect Muslim communities in Canada.
Nawaz Tahir, a London-based lawyer and chair of the Hikma Public Affairs Council, a Muslim advocacy group, expressed disappointment at Elghawaby’s rocky start in her role. He believes that her being called to apologize for criticizing a bill that a judge already deemed discriminatory is unfortunate. Tahir pointed out that a survey of Québécois actually found majority support for Bill 21, which, in his opinion, speaks volumes about why Elghawaby’s role is necessary.
Despite his concerns, Tahir is encouraged by Elghawaby’s determination and her decision to make London her first official stop. He sees her work as critical in addressing Islamophobia in Canada and challenging problematic legislation like Bill 21, which he views as a symbolic manifestation of Islamophobia in the country.
Tahir also called for an update to the Criminal Code to include a clearer definition of what constitutes a hate crime. This would provide better guidance for law enforcement and the justice system in handling cases of hate-motivated attacks and contribute to a safer environment for all Canadians, regardless of their religious or cultural background.
Elghawaby’s efforts to combat Islamophobia in Canada are undeniably significant and timely, as the country grapples with issues of discrimination, hate crimes, and cultural divides. As the representative against Islamophobia, she is tasked with fostering understanding, promoting inclusivity, and ensuring that the rights and concerns of Muslim communities are duly addressed by the government.
The challenges she faces in her role are immense, as she navigates both political backlash and the deeply rooted fears of the communities she serves. Her determination to engage in difficult conversations and confront controversial legislation, such as Bill 21, underscores the importance of her work in fostering a more inclusive and tolerant Canadian society.
Amira Elghawaby’s official tour as Canada’s anti-Islamophobia representative marks a critical step towards addressing the pressing issue of Islamophobia in the country. Her willingness to engage with communities, have difficult conversations, and call out problematic legislation demonstrates her commitment to creating a more inclusive and safer environment for Canada’s Muslim population. As she continues her tour across the country, Elghawaby’s work serves as a vital reminder of the importance of promoting tolerance and understanding in an increasingly diverse society.