Phillips: Storm over Elghawaby appointment proof of need for someone like her in the job

Representative of the favourable commentary to her appointment. I agree, if she hadn’t been public on her opposition to Bill 21 and the public attitudes behind it and previous Quebec debates, she would have no credibility. It is more with respect with her other positions that questions can be asked:

It took 18 months for the Trudeau government to carry through on its promise to name a “special representative” to combat Islamophobia. It took just 24 hours for that appointment to blow up in its face.

Last Thursday the government announced it had named Amira Elghawaby to the position. Elghawaby is well known to us at the Star; she’s been contributing thoughtful, insightful articles to our opinion pages for several years on all sorts of subjects, with a focus on social justice issues.

It was an excellent and well-deserved appointment. The government patted itself on the back for making it a few days before the anniversary of the Quebec City mosque massacre. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it an “important step” in the fight against “hatred in all its forms.”

But no good deed, as they say, goes unpunished. Elghawaby has been outspoken, as you’d expect, against Quebec’s Bill 21, the frankly discriminatory law that bars people wearing religious symbols (notably Muslim women) from holding certain government jobs. So Montreal’s La Presse reported that Trudeau had just appointed someone who portrays Quebecers as “anti-Muslim.”

Cue the outrage in Quebec. A federal Liberal minister (Pablo Rodriguez) professed to be “profoundly insulted” as a Quebecer by Elghawaby’s comments. Trudeau called on her to “explain” them. By Monday, the Quebec government was demanding her resignation. And Pierre Poilievre found the time to craft a video attacking Trudeau for appointing someone he smeared as “anti-Quebec, anti-Jewish and anti-police.”

Poilievre’s attack is particularly sleazy. His real target isn’t Elghawaby. She’s just road kill in his assault on the Trudeau government and all its works.

It’s also BS. The idea that Elghawaby thinks Quebecers are Muslim haters is based on an article she co-wrote in 2019 for the Ottawa Citizen with Bernie Farber, who is a human-rights activist as well as being Jewish. They cited a poll showing 88 per cent of Quebecers who hold anti-Muslim views supported Bill 21, and wrote that “unfortunately” most Quebecers seemed at that moment to be swayed “by anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Frankly, viewed in the context of the time, when Quebec had just passed the most discriminatory law in modern Canadian history, the article is remarkably moderate. It decries the “tyranny of the majority” and ends with an appeal to uphold “basic human rights and dignity” for all. 

Elghawaby’s other supposedly offensive comments have also been twisted out of shape. As for being “anti-Jewish,” her appointment was welcomed by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the country’s leading Jewish organization, as well as by Irwin Cotler, Canada’s special representative on antisemitism. If she’d taken anti-Jewish positions, you’d think they’d have noticed.

I don’t agree with quite a bit of what Elghawaby has written, such as her view that Canada should abolish the monarchy. But so what? I haven’t seen a thing she’s written that goes beyond the bounds of reasonable debate (and no, I don’t include the occasional badly worded tweet). 

As a human-rights activist she challenges Canadian complacency, but that hardly disqualifies her from serving (in the words of the government’s announcement) as a “champion, adviser, expert and representative” on fighting anti-Muslim hatred. On the contrary.

Some will argue that, regardless of all this, her appointment is “divisive” — the evidence being the reaction to it in Quebec. But the truth is that while hatred of all sorts knows no political boundaries, there is a particular problem with the way Quebec handles issues of religious tolerance and minorities.

The evidence for that is plain for all to see in Bill 21 itself, which is blatantly discriminatory and racist in effect if not in intent. Sure, there’s a complicated history behind all this. But if Islamophobia can’t be frankly confronted in Quebec, of all places, there’s no point in having a national representative on the issue.

On Monday, the prime minister said he’s satisfied with Elghawaby’s explanation of her past remarks and she will remain in place. That’s absolutely the right decision. In fact, the uproar around her appointment is the best possible demonstration of the need for putting someone like her in the job.

Source: Phillips: Storm over Elghawaby appointment proof of need for someone like her in the job

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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