Canada's new position for combating Islamophobia is 'about bringing people together'

Amira Elghawaby is Canada's first-ever special representative on combating Islamophobia. She tells Nil Köksal what she thinks success in that job will look like.

Amira Elghawaby wants to find common solutions to combat hate, and specific solutions on Islamophobia

A woman with a headscarf and glasses.
Amira Elghawaby has been appointed Canada's first representative to combat Islamophobia. (Simon Gohier/CBC)

Amira Elghawaby hopes to build solutions to combat prejudice in all its forms, while also developing specific solutions to Islamophobia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named the former journalist and human rights activist as the first representative to combat Islamophobia Thursday morning.

The new position was one of the recommendations from a summit that followed the murder of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ont., in 2021. That incident was described as a "planned, premeditated act" against a family of five "because of their Muslim faith."

Here is part of Elghawaby's conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Amira, this is a brand new role for you, but also for Canada. How would you describe your job?

My job now is really about championing, advocating Canadian Muslim communities in this country, to stand up for their rights to live a life free of discrimination, free from the fear of facing Islamophobia in their day-to-day lives.

And so what I will be doing is listening to their concerns, providing input and advice to the federal government on how we can work together to address systemic racism in this country, and how we can make Canada a place that we can raise our children in safety, and not be fearful that we will potentially be attacked, or that we will face discrimination that impacts our ability to participate fully in making Canada as strong as it could be.

How do you make sure it isn't just a symbolic role? Because sometimes these roles can veer into that, right? How do you make sure that it has a lasting impact?

It's going to take a lot of work; there's no doubt about it. 

Islamophobia has touched many of us. On Sunday, we are going to be marking the sixth anniversary of the tragic attack at the Quebec City mosque where six men were killed in cold blood by an individual who was so consumed with extreme ideas and Islamophobic hatred.

And that sadly wasn't the last time there was such a massacre. We had the Afzaal family in London, Ontario that faced the terrible, terrible attack. And four members of that family were killed.

So we know that Islamophobia can have these deadly consequences and we also know that it can have a sort of everyday, systemic impact. And so the federal government, by creating this role, is signaling that there is going to be a real effort to figuring out, to working together on how we can create policies that make a change.

How will [your role] help prevent the kinds of attacks and the incidents that you just listed?

Obviously, a role like this will not necessarily stop someone who decides in their mind that the Muslim that they see — you know, on the road, on public transit, in public spaces — is ... a threat to them. Sadly those narratives exist, particularly online where we see a rise in Islamophobic discourse, as well as other forms of harmful divisive narratives including anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, anti-Indigenous hate, and a variety of other very harmful ideas that sadly are finding groups that are latching on to them.

So a role like this is not necessarily going to stop those individuals, but a role like this can at least work with communities to look for potential solutions.

How can we help sort of foster a society in which these ideas just become less attractive? How can we work to address systemic forms, as well, of Islamophobia — for example, where you have people who are being discriminated against because of what they're wearing, their names, et cetera?

We can really come up with creative solutions to be an example on the world stage of what it means to be an inclusive society, where people of various backgrounds and religious expression and cultural background ... can come together and really build a strong stable country where everyone can succeed.

A memorial is pictured at the intersection of Hyde Park and South Carriage roads in London, Ont., where after a family of five was struck by a truck two days earlier, in an attack Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an ‘act of terrorism,’ on June 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

You mentioned systemic racism. There are people across this country, even in leadership positions, who — despite evidence to the contrary — don't accept that systemic racism exists in this country or their part of the country. I'm wondering what kind of reaction you've received since the announcement came out.

I think there's just a lot of misunderstanding that's still out there about the role Canadian Muslims want to play in society. Just like any other communities, it's all about wanting to raise our families, wanting to contribute, wanting to work in a variety of professions to not only better ourselves, better our communities, but better the country as well. 

And so already, you know, in this role where I can sometimes [get] questions about, you know, what is it exactly that you're trying to do? Is it about dividing Canadians? And the answer is absolutely not.

This is about bringing people together. This is about learning and sharing together in a spirit of multiculturalism and understanding.

Just as we want to talk about decolonization and understand the impact that colonization has had on Indigenous communities, just as we want to understand the impact of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, we also need to understand the impacts of Islamophobia....

Through knowledge and conversation and dialogue, we can continue to work towards a country that makes all of us very proud.

Trudeau takes part in a moment of silence in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in recognition of the attack that left four members of the Afzaal family dead. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

What kind of hate have you faced? I mean, even after the announcement came out, I can only imagine your inbox or your social feeds. What have you seen?

I think first it's really important to just thank those who've already reached out to me. It was really a lot of, you know, support and solidarity. And that has been something that has always really brought a lot of joy. And I like to focus on the positive.

But of course there are those who do have negative things to say; there's no doubt about it.  There are hateful comments. But honestly, I always really, truly believe that maybe 80 per cent or 90 per cent of those comments are really coming from a place of just not understanding.

I have spent, over the course of my career, hours upon hours actually speaking to people who came to me with hateful views, who didn't like my headscarf… or didn't understand why I was standing up against Islamophobia. When we have our conversation, not all the time, but many times they are going to come away with a better understanding. And I also come away [with] a better understanding of where they're coming from, too.

So dialogue really is what's going to get us through these difficult conversations to address this phenomenon, but we're going to be stronger for it. 

At the end of your term, what will success look and feel like to you?

I think it's going to really be up to communities to inform us what that looks like. So I'm looking forward to hearing from people. I'm looking forward to working with them to help families, communities feel that they're safe in this country, that there are policies at all levels of government that address all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia; that their fears and their concerns are being heard.

If there's anything that is quite common across all communities that are targeted with hate, [it's] the need to be heard, to be believed and to be supportive. And I'm really looking forward to working with allies across the country, across communities, to look for common solutions to combat hate, as well as specific solutions on Islamophobia.

Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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