Hanes: Elghawaby uproar shows how criticism of Quebec is weaponized

Hanes: Elghawaby uproar shows how criticism of Quebec is weaponized

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Once again fundamental issues are overshadowed by Quebec’s attack.

Amira Elghawaby, the federal government’s special envoy to counter Islamophobia, meets with Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. Photo by Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press Article content

The backlash against Amira Elghawaby over her alleged anti-Quebec comments has followed a predictable and familiar pattern.

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Elghawaby was appointed the federal government’s first special envoy to counter Islamophobia last week, on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City.

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Since then, the human rights activist and journalist’s earlier writings have been unearthed, and a line in an opinion piece she co-authored in the Ottawa Citizen in 2019 was seized as an unforgivable affront to all Quebecers. (Some questionable tweets were later revealed.)

“Unfortunately, the majority of Quebecers seem to be influenced not by the rule of law but by anti-Muslim sentiment,” Elghawaby wrote, referring to a poll that showed widespread support in Quebec for Bill 21, the province’s secularism law, which barred the public Prevent officials in positions of authority, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious robes.

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The passage has been widely interpreted as Elghawaby referring to Quebecers as Islamophobes.

Cue the outrage. The Quebec government has officially requested their removal. Three out of four parties accepted a motion in the National Assembly asking them to apologize – or resign. Media commentators considered her unsuitable to act as the federal government’s anti-discrimination watchdog. Prime Minister François Legault said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “100 percent” support for Elghawaby was a testament to his “contempt” for Quebec.

There’s nothing like criticism from an outsider to make Quebec’s political establishment forget their differences, band together and circle the wagons.

Elghawaby is a passionate advocate for rights – the rights of women, minorities and Muslims. She has a long track record of speaking out against prejudice at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, not to mention her journalism.

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Full disclosure: I went to university with Elghawaby. We worked together on the student newspaper.

Did she offend Quebecers? Well, Quebecers sure are offended. Was that what she wanted? I doubt it. Does she regret not having chosen more nuanced words? I’ve contacted her but haven’t heard anything yet.

On Wednesday, she apologized and said she was “very sorry” for hurting Quebecers. However, it wasn’t enough to quell the excitement. The Legault government called its mea culpa “too little, too late” and doubled down on calling for her departure.

While there’s a certain irony in the backlash against Elghawaby’s grudges in a province that recently passed legislation protecting free speech from political correctness in academia — including the use of the painful n-word — it’s important to recognize the unique sensibilities understood by Quebec.

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The iron grip of the Roman Catholic Church, which was shaken off during the Quiet Revolution, left a lasting skepticism about all religions and created a deep attachment to secularism. Likewise, feminism’s contributions to modern Quebec society have made gender equality a valued value. But this belief has also fueled misconceptions about why some Muslim women wear the hijab.

But much of what is troubling about this uproar has little to do with what Elghawaby wrote or meant.

Once again fundamental issues are overshadowed by Quebec’s attack. Whether it’s systemic racism, Islamophobia, the undermining of minority rights, or allowing discrimination because laws have been shielded by constitutional transgression, they play second fiddle.

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Yes, Quebecers have historical grievances that shouldn’t be downplayed. But at some point, Quebec needs to go beyond that and stop using the past as an excuse to ignore the injustices of the present or the injustices of others.

Once again, the Legault administration has managed to arm any criticism of Quebec as a “frontal attack.”

Last week, it was Trudeau’s concern about the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause, which undermines constitutional rights in Ontario and Quebec. This week, it’s Elghawaby’s opposition to Bill 21, which the Quebec Supreme Court has already ruled violates the rights of religious minorities, particularly Muslim women.

The Legault administration has so successfully woven these issues into Quebec’s values, identity and autonomy that contesting them is practically heresy. And once the offense has been stoked, the opposition parties line up, trying to outdo each other as the most ardent defenders of Quebec’s honor.

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This groupthink even works at parties, as liberal MNA Jennifer Maccarone has found out the hard way. She had to apologize for using her Twitter finger too quickly to express her sympathy for Elghawaby. It turns out that interim leader of the Liberals, Marc Tanguay, wanted to join the bunch.

All of this is leading to a growing intolerance of dissent that is dangerous to democracy, has a chilling effect on free speech, and also casts doubt on who falls within the definition of the so-contempted Quebecers.

Part of the outcry over Elghawaby’s comments centered on the fact that she singled out Quebecers for their anti-Muslim stance. In fact, Quebecers are no more racist than other Canadians. Data from the cited Elghawaby survey even shows it. And if ever there was evidence that the majority of Québecians are not Islamophobic, it was the overwhelming support for the Muslim community following the mosque attack.

But Quebec is also the only province that has a law restricting the rights of religious minorities, and Bill 21 is very popular with Quebecers.

It shouldn’t be so scandalous to point it out.

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Allison Hanes: At some point, Ottawa has to stand up for the Constitution. Allison Hanes: Even children can see that Bill 21 is wrong, why can’t our leaders? Share this article on your social network Ad 1

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