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The Rage Against Amira Elghawaby

What the Elghawaby controversy says about Bill 21

On January 26, Amira Elghawaby was appointed Canada’s first Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia. Controversy surrounding her appointment has turned the public’s attention once again to Bill 21, the Quebec law that bans anyone who works in the public sector in the province, including teachers and police officers, from wearing hijabs, yarmulkes, and other overt religious displays while on the job.

All of Quebec’s political parties as well as the Bloc Québécois have come out against Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment, demanding that the Prime Minister withdraw her nomination. The main complaint about Ms. Elghawaby’s appointment stems from an opinion piece she co-authored in 2019 for the Ottawa Citizen in which she pointed to a poll that showed that a large majority of Quebecers who claimed to support Bill 21 also held negative views about Islam. “Unfortunately,” she wrote in the piece, “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.”

The province’s political leadership complained that Ms. Elghawaby was making broad generalizations about the province, unfairly painting all Quebecers with the same broad strokes. Critics were quick to point out that Quebecers are not Islamophobic – or at least not any more Islamophobic than any other Canadians. Critics also objected to Ms. Elghawaby’s assertion that Bill 21 was in any way the product of Islamophobic sentiments, suggesting instead that it reflected the will of a majority of Quebecers who have worked hard since the Quiet Revolution to build a modern and secular society. 

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that these points also paint the province with the same broad strokes as Ms. Elghawaby’s critics claim she had done with her opinion piece, the point about the Quiet Revolution is dubious. 

The popular understanding of the Quiet Revolution is that the 1960s represented the moment when Quebecers turned away from Catholicism and began the process of building a modern and secular society. It is true that this was a moment when the province threw off the shackles of the Church. But this was not done to achieve secularism so much as it was an attempt on the part of the political, professional, and business classes in the province to reduce the influence of the Church over the state in order to solidify their own positions of power within the state and within society.  

Over the last half century, historians have shown that the reforms of the Quiet Revolution were more about challenging the power of the Catholic Church than they were about challenging Catholicism itself. If one were to follow this reading of history, Bill 21 should be regarded less as an attempt to defend the supposedly hard-won gains associated with secularism that have been achieved since the Quiet Revolution and more as part of an ongoing effort to enhance the powers of the state – and, with it, to preserve the privileges of the largely white and male leadership classes in the province. 

Along with Bill 96, which amended Bill 101 in ways that restrict the freedom of Quebecers who wish to obtain services in English, Bill 21 is intended to limit the freedoms enjoyed by members of minority groups who threaten to undermine the authority of the province’s  leadership class. This leadership class has come to rely on its ability to defend the French language as well as the secularism of the society for its continued hold on power. The preemptive use of the Notwithstanding Clause to pass both laws means that any debate about minority rights in the province is effectively silenced. 

It is always troubling to watch a majority in any society employ the instruments of state power to limit the rights and freedoms of minority groups. Even so, the passage of laws such as Bill 21 and Bill 96 should be regarded as evidence that the French-speaking, white, male, and “secular” political, professional, and business classes are not at all confident in their ability to maintain their hold on power. By attempting to limit the rights of religious minorities as well as the rights of those who wish to express themselves in English, the overwhelmingly French-speaking, white, and male power structure is attempting – just as it has since the Quiet Revolution – to shore up its position atop a secular and French-speaking society.

It is thus hardly surprising that the nomination of Amira Elghawaby to be Canada’s representative in the fight against Islamophobia should have aroused such anger from Quebec’s leadership classes. Her past comments about Bill 21 notwithstanding, her very existence in a position of political influence – a position that might influence public opinion – represents an unacceptable threat to the power and privileges that Quebec’s male political leadership has accumulated for itself since the Quiet Revolution.