Shree Paradkar: For Amira Elghawaby, surviving this witchhunt won’t be through civility — she needs to stick to the ugly truth

Understand the political pressures to apologize. Still doesn’t justify walking back from her and Farber’s legitimate take on Bill 21 and the Quebec analysis by Leger (virtually all surveys by various companies highlight Quebec’s lower acceptance and tolerance of Canadian Muslims. Other comments, yes:

Take a look at these two quotes.

“Anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be the main motivation for those who support a ban on religious symbols, a new poll has found.” — a Montreal Gazette report in 2019.

“Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” — an Ottawa Citizen opinion piece a couple of months later.

Can you find the difference between this news report and this commentary? There isn’t much, in substance at least, if you analyze the Leger Marketing poll the quotes reference. But only one of them is at the centre of newly manufactured national outrage.

That second quote appeared in an opinion piece that Amira Elghawaby, then a journalist, co-wrote with Bernie Farber, then CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The first quote is received as information. The second, we’re given to understand, is prejudice.

Elghawaby, whom the Trudeau government appointed only last week as its special representative on combating Islamophobia, is the target of a bizarre witchhunt for the apparent sin of offending an entire province for having repeated the outcome of a poll — three years ago. She apologized for it this week.

She never should have.

Gather around, folks, to hear the story of the most inane politicization of an innocuous political posting, to understand what the cowardice of power looks like and to learn why one must never apologize for speaking truth to that power.

See, it begins in June 2019, when Bill 21, which bans public servants from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, passed into law.

No, make that 2017, with Bill 62, which decreed nobody was allowed to cover their face while providing a public service. Or maybe 2013, with Bill 60, a supposed “Charter of Values,” calling for a ban on all “ostentatious” religious symbols. Or better still 2010, when the more blatant Bill 94 tried to ban women wearing the niqab and burqa while receiving or delivering public services.

Whatever the bill, whichever the party, whatever the stated purpose — “it affects all religions,” “it respects our secularism” — it is an example of majoritarian excess. That’s true even taking into account that the separation of church and state has been hard-earned in Quebec. And while various religious minorities felt the impact of Bill 21, it has been most devastating for Muslim women.

A survey last August found two-thirds of Muslim women interviewed said they’d either been a victim of or witnessed a hate crime.

In general, I don’t put much stock in the oppression-fighting powers of government appointees. But if the mandate of this representative is to provide expert advice to ministers on combating Islamophobia, you’d think, at the very least, those who appointed her understood that this expert’s views were legitimate.

However, because Quebec is an important battleground for votes, federal politicians are loath to stand against it. Which means majoritarian sentiments, not fairness or principle, dictate political calculus.

It explains why the Liberals appear reluctant to stand by even the mildest of rebukes of Quebec; there was nothing provocative about what Elghawaby and Farber wrote.

Islamophobia literally kills Canadians, and fuels various other forms of violence. But go on, make it about the hurt feelings of the majority instead.

Which is exactly what La Presse began when it reported that the prime minister’s new appointee had once painted Quebec as “anti-Muslim.”

This is why you have Quebec’s nationalist ruling party, Coalition Avenir Québec, scooping a handful of nothing, swirling it in the air, and releasing it with the triumphant flourish of a magician’s revelation. You have opportunistic federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre gleefully swooping in to grab the invisible magic dust and professing great affront by it, and you have the Liberals dithering, contemplating: is the scandal nothing or is it worth something, trapped in the eternal question: what is the value of zero?

At various times, the prime minister has distanced himself from her comments; appeared to stand by her; and apparently facilitated a meeting with the Bloc leader without consulting her.

No doubt other sections of the media are trying to get a bite out of the nothingburger, investigating penetrating handwringers such as “how was she appointed in the first place?”

Photographs published in the past few days could well be a metaphor for her isolation. On the day of the announcement of her appointment, Jan. 26, a photo tweeted by Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen features himself along with Elghawaby and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra among others. On Wednesday, Elghawaby is seen going to meet Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and facing a swarm of journalists, by herself.

She hasn’t even begun the job. As my colleague Raisa Patel reported, Elghawaby’s start date is Feb. 20. “That also means she currently does not have her own staff, nor is she being paid to take part in such meetings.”

And we wonder why women, especially those marked for identity-based hostility, stay away from public positions?

Those who challenge power are often chided for being belligerent, unreasonable, uncivil. It’s as if all it requires for the powers that be, and those who influence them, to ensure equality is to be asked politely.

Want civility? Elghawaby apologized Thursday. Said she was sorry for having “hurt the people of Quebec.”

“I’m glad that she apologized but she still has to resign,” said Jean-François Roberge, Quebec’s minister responsible for the French language.

So much for conciliation. Lesson learned.

Source: Shree Paradkar: For Amira Elghawaby, surviving this witchhunt won’t be through civility — she needs to stick to the ugly truth

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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