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Amira Elghawaby on Islamophobia in Canada

Countering hate and promoting inclusion

Content warning: Islamophobic violence

The McGill community welcomed Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s first Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, on January 31 to lead a bilingual French and English discussion on “Unpacking the Dynamics of Islamophobia in Canada, Challenges and Opportunities.” The award-winning journalist and human rights advocate discussed  her initiatives and efforts to counter hate, tackle Islamophobia, and promote inclusion. 

Organized by the Muslim Student Affairs Liaison in collaboration with the Office of the Provost and the Institute of Islamic Studies, the talk was part of a series of events on campus marking Muslim Awareness Week, a yearly week of solidarity and exchanges. This event was started as a response to the Quebec City mosque shooting on January 29 2017, in which six men were killed and several seriously injured. Its sixth edition ran from January 25 to February 1 with the aim of promoting greater inclusion and equity while facing the challenges of Quebec’s pluralistic society. 

Rise of Islamophobia in Canada

The event began with a short introduction of Elghawaby’s role as one of the founding board members of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network; as a member of Canada’s National Security Transparency Advisory Group; and her appointment in January 2023 as Canada’s first Special Representative on Combating Islamophobia. She then reflected upon the commemoration of the shooting, which was the “first-ever attack on a place of refuge in Canada.” She repeated the declarations of the widows, who urged her to “tell everyone to not forget,” emphasizing that “if we forget, we risk seeing those types of hatred coming forward again.” Elghawaby then expressed her “deep concern about Canada’s social fabric and democracy” in the wake of rising Islamophobia. A recent Senate report revealed Canada as the leading G7 country in the number of killings motivated by Islamophobia, with Muslim women being primary targets for violence. Following the events of October 7, there was an increase in hate crimes, and a regression to post 9/11 anti-Muslim rhetoric was witnessed as demonstrated by the numerous reports from students denouncing a hostile climate and censoring their voices. Elghawaby contrasted the current situation with the absence of Islamophobia in her upbringing in which “our differences were something to celebrate, something to share, something to welcome.” Despite multiculturalism being a central part of Canada’s identity, it did not prevent Islamophobia from becoming a core component of Canadian society and an integral part of her experience and that of Muslims after 9/11. 

Elghawaby defined Islamophobia as “racism, stereotypes, prejudice, fear, and acts of hostility directed towards Muslims in general as well as the viewing and treating of Muslims as a greater threat at an institutional level.” Arguing that the simple act of acknowledging the issue became politically contentious and was only enabled by the mosque shooting in 2017. This prompted her to challenge the audience, asking if more people need to die for serious action to be taken. She explored the various forms, both deadly and daily, in which Islamophobia manifests. Drawing particular attention to Islamophobia in policing, notably through racial profiling, she also dwelled on discrimination in employment, with the severe underemployment of Muslim women. In addition, a 2023 report by Islamic Relief Canada found that a high 67 per cent of Canadian workers have reported having experienced a form of formal discrimination and an even higher 83 per cent have experienced a form of informal discrimination due to being Muslim. Elghawaby also raised the issue of intersectional Islamophobia, where Islamophobia is heightened for Black Muslim women who face a combination of sources of discrimination, resentment, and hate. She urged for greater consideration of those experiences with the crucial need for an increased focus on these multifaceted forms of discrimination. 

Islamophobia’s Root Causes

Elghawaby explored the narratives fueling anti-Muslim sentiment, such as the notion of Muslims as the “other”, which spurred fear, radicalization, and white-supremacist ideas. She drew upon various research and statistics, such as the Angus Reed survey which found that Canadians, especially in Quebec, were more likely to have an unfavorable opinion of Islam than of the four other major religions: Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Later Elghawaby stressed the role of online spaces in allowing Islamophobia to exist, spread, and facilitate the emergence of anti-Muslim groups with baseless rhetoric; the proliferation of fake news; and the harboring of theories like the “Great Replacement” theory. She denounced a system benefiting from users’ anger and algorithms consequently promoting polarizing divisive content. Despite a surge of solidarity after the 2017 mosque shooting, Islamophobic agitators and groups continued emerging, reaching out to other social issues to stay relevant and upholding an anti-government narrative. Islamophobia is also severely exacerbated by global events, notably the October 7 attacks by Hamas. Elghawaby urged communities to come together, to work with an anti-racist mindset, and to ensure that the rights and freedoms of all citizens are upheld. Ending on a hopeful note, she declared that “respect and compassion are values that drive my office to work even harder to find ways to build and rebuild divisions.”

A Q&A Session Focused on Bill 21

Various students and professors were able to ask questions, prompting her to discuss the advent of Bill 21 in Québec which she described as having “a discriminatory impact” on minorities, especially Muslim women who wear the hijab, and impacting their sense of belonging. Elghawaby reminded the audience that the law was said to be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which she described as the “North Star of our country, a promise to every citizen that they will be treated equally.” She also explored community-informed solutions and pilot projects aimed at improving Canada’s social fabric, such as one in Northern Ontario aimed at fostering religious literacy for municipal workers. Finally, she encouraged resilience in the face of challenges, especially those tied to being Muslim and being a woman, highlighting that it is essential to educate ourselves and advocate for rights that should be guaranteed.