The People We Hate
Amira Elghawaby, white victimhood and the Muslim women who live in fear every day.
“Hey, I’m sorry to ask but can you wait until I'm gone before posting photos of me and the baby?”
It seemed like an innocent request, at first. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their lives on social media and I appreciated Shireen setting that boundary.
If only it were that innocent.
“I just got a death threat so it's safer if people don't know where I am in real time," she said. "I don't wanna be a wet blanket, I just worry when I travel with my kid.”
Shireen was one of the first people to visit our family after Wednesday was born. For three days, Shireen and her daughter Jihad cradled our baby, bottle fed her and rocked Wenzie back to sleep while my partner and I lumbered around the house like zombies.
Why anyone would want to kill Shireen is beyond me. I’ll be the first to admit Shireen isn’t perfect; she loves to argue and rarely misses an opportunity to remind me that my girlfriend is way out of my league. Also, she lives in the Greater Toronto Area.
But it was Shireen I turned to when Marie-Pier needed a pep talk during the birth of our child. I'll never forget how Marie-Pier's face — drenched in sweat and pale from the agony of labour — lit up as she listened to Shireen's encouragement on speakerphone.
“Marie-Pier, you are strong, you are beautiful and no one will ever be a better mother to this child than you," Shireen said. "And if you can't stand the pain, squeeze Chris' hand until he screams.”
The people who want Shireen to die don’t see her for who she is. They don’t see a mother who raised four beautiful children — often on her own — or a soccer fanatic who hosts one of the most popular sports podcasts in Canada. They just see her hijab. And for that reason, they want Shireen to be afraid for her life.
I think about that a lot.
Not just on Sunday, which marked six years since a man walked into la grande mosquée de Québec and murdered six people as they prayed. And not just last week, when Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon implied Muslim immigrants are the cause of right wing extremism against... Muslim immigrants. And certainly not Monday, when a Quebec cabinet minister urged the federal government to fire its first-ever representative against Islamophobia because she has a track record of denouncing... Islamophobia (in Quebec).
I think about it because I can't conceive of a world without my sister Shireen.
While Quebec's political class has made a cottage industry out of white victimhood, Muslim women across Canada live in fear every day. Unlike the bourgeois columnists at Quebecor — the province’s biggest media conglomerate — they aren't afraid of hurt feelings. They're afraid they'll be slaughtered in their places of worship or mowed down by a pickup truck during a family walk.
So when the federal government announced the appointment of Amira Elghawaby as its representative to combat Islamophobia last week, I was under the impression this was good news. Elghawaby has written for the Toronto Star, she’s worked in the labour movement, served as a commissioner on the Canadian Commission for Democratic Expression and she’s well respected in Muslim communities across the country.
Her critics in Quebec don’t see any of this.
They’ve taken the sum total of her life’s work and narrowed it down to a few columns that criticize Bill 21 — a piece of legislation that purports to promote religious neutrality in the public sphere but seems mostly to single out Muslim women. Quebec’s own Superior Court called the law “morally repugnant” in a ruling that struck down part of the controversial law in 2021. The court argued that, in practice, Bill 21 almost exclusively targets Muslim women, excluding them from working as teachers, government lawyers, police officers and elected representatives if they dare wear their hijab on the job.
The government knows its religious neutrality law is an attack on the right of conscience. That’s why they pre-emptively used the Notwithstanding Clause (a rare move in Canadian politics) and unilaterally amended Quebec’s Charter of Rights (unprecedented in the province’s history) to pass Bill 21.
If anything, Elghawaby’s criticism that Bill 21 is linked to an “anti Muslim sentiment” in Quebec was a much milder take than the Superior Court’s.
That didn’t stop Journal de Montréal columnist Denise Bombardier from claiming — rather hysterically — that Elghawaby’s appointment an endorsement for “radical Islam” by our federal government. How radical is Elghawaby? So radical, that she stood shoulder to shoulder with members of the LGBTQ, Black, Jewish and Sikh communities in 2015 to denounce hate speech in Canada. If your only source of information on Islam is Le Journal, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Muslims are homophobes who don’t mix outside their community.
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Islamophobia is so prevalent in our discourse that Premier François Legault had to disable comments on his tweet commemorating the mosque shooting Sunday because people wouldn’t stop posting racist replies. Which reminds me of the time TVA Nouvelles — Quebec’s most watched news network — had to delete a Facebook post about a fire that killed seven children in a family of Syrian Refugees in Halifax. The post became inundated with users applauding their death. I can’t imagine hating someone so much that I would celebrate kids burning in their beds.
Yes, these are just idiots on the Internet but their views didn't just appear out of nowhere.
To be clear, I don’t think that the mosque shooter killed Muslims because he reads Le Journal or listened to one of the city’s many bigot disc jockeys. And I don’t think Quebec is more racist or less tolerant than any other jurisdiction in Canada.
After all, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper campaigned on a promise to launch a anti-Muslim snitch line in 2015, the measure polled well across the country. And the Alberta-based shit-posting site Rebel News spread conspiracy theories about the Quebec City mosque shooting during its coverage of the massacre. Shitposter-in-chief Ezra Levant later tried to raise money off the shooting (I don’t believe in hell but sometimes I wonder).
Of course, I don’t live in the ROC. Quebec is my home and I think we need to be more cognizant of how our politicians, journalists and commentators talk about Muslims. Because it’s not like the mosque shooting happened in a vacuum. Three months before the attack, that same mosque was targeted by racist vandals who gift-wrapped a severed pig’s head and left it outside the building.
“It wasn’t a particularly subtle message,” said Boufeldja Benabdallah, who co-founded the Centre culturel islamique de Québec. “We’re Muslim, we don’t eat pork, so someone thought it would be funny to cut off a pig’s head and leave it there to scare us. The message was clear: Your kind is not welcome here.”
For context, in the years leading up to the massacre, Quebec City’s radio stations routinely singled out Muslims for scorn, constantly demanding local leaders denounce terrorist attacks half way around the world to prove their loyalty to Quebec. And even when they did denounce attacks, which was often, people like Benabdallah were told they didn’t denounce fast enough. So after the pig’s head incident, you would have though the radio stations would de-escalate their rhetoric.
Éric Duhaime, one of the capital city’s most popular DJs at the time, had this to say about the pig’s head.
“Where does it say, in the Criminal Code, that I can’t give someone a pig’s head?” Duhaime said on his radio show. “It may be a dumb joke … it may be a little ridiculous … but it isn’t hateful.”
Duhaime is now leader of the Quebec Conservative Party, which garnered 15 per cent of the popular vote in last year’s provincial election. But far from being just a bottom-feeder in the political swamp, Duhaime has played a huge role in the mainstreaming of Islamophobia.
It was Premier Legault who argued, during the election, that more immigration leads to more societal discord. And it was Jean Boulet, Legault’s own immigration minister, who spread disinformation about immigrants on the eve of the election, falsely claiming that 80 per cent of new arrivals are jobless layabouts. Boulet’s ministry had also floated the idea of making new arrivals pass a “Quebec values” loyalty test before becoming permanent residents.
Quebec has an Islamophobia problem. Canada has an Islamophobia problem. Europe is a giant steaming pile of Islamophobia. We can do a lot better by our Muslim brothers and sisters. Now, our choice is simple: we can either seize on the work Amira Elghawaby is doing and all play a role in making Canada safer for people like Shireen and her daughter Jihad. Or we can sit on our pale asses and be offended.
I know what my choice is.
Good luck, Amira. You’ll need it.
Just a single, quick quibble: "I don’t think Quebec is more racist or less tolerant than any other jurisdiction in Canada." As a brown man, I have an observation.
I've lived most of my life in Ontario. Suburban Toronto, Toronto proper, and Ottawa for the most part. I lived in Montreal for 5 years of my working life. I loved living in Montreal, but it was also the place where I faced the most overt racism, and not by a small margin.
Maybe racists were just quieter and more polite in other places, but nowhere else did I experience people openly referring to me in derogatory terms when they sat a few feet away at a bar. Nowhere else have I experienced people yelling racist insults at me as I walked down the street.
I'll have to trust my friends who insisted that these people weren't Montrealais based on how they sounded. But, it does spoil my feeling that Montreal was one of my favourite places to live.
Excellent piece. The right has adopted the tactic that denouncing racism, bigotry and homophobia is being 'divisive' and that we should stop doing it under some nebulous idea of unity.
The reverse is true. We need to do much, much more of it.