Canada has appointed its first special representative for combating Islamophobia, to tackle racism, discrimination and religious intolerance faced by the Muslim community, which has experienced targeted attacks.
Amira Elghawaby, a journalist, human rights advocate and member of the Canada Race Relations Foundation, was named to the position and will provide advisory support to government initiatives.
“Muslims are sometimes caught between being perceived as a threat or as representing a problem to solve,” Elghawaby told reporters. She said she hoped this moment would spur a national conversation about the value of Canada’s diversity.
In 2021, the country was jolted by what the police called a “targeted” hate crime when a man was accused of using a car to mow down five members of a family in Ontario because of their Muslim faith, killing four and injuring a 9-year-old-boy. Authorities described it an “act of mass murder” rooted in “unspeakable hatred.” It reopened the wounds of a 2017 tragedy when a gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec, killing six and injuring 19.
More Muslims were killed in hate-motivated attacks in Canada than in any other Group of Seven country between 2016 and 2021, according to a report by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), which was cited by a Senate fact-finding mission on Islamophobia last year.
These attacks led the Canadian government to host a summit on Islamophobia in 2021, which recommended the creation of the role that was announced this week. Nearly 1.8 million Muslims reside in Canada, making up 4.9 percent of the population in 2021.
Elghawaby is expected to serve for four years and have a budget of $4.2 million, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News.
Sanober Umar, a professor at York University in Toronto who studies issues affecting the Muslim community, said that Muslims in Canada face biases in media coverage, police violence, legislation targeting markers of faith and disparaging attacks in public spaces.
Many Muslims, she said, do not come forward to report hate crimes due to a mistrust of authorities.
“This position is a hopefully optimistic symbol of the fact that the Canadian government is listening to Muslim concerns and will take tangible steps to address the racist roots of these issues,” she said.
Canada’s political leaders agree Quebec’s religious symbols ban is discriminatory. They’ve also agreed not to do anything about it.
The NCCM said in a statement that the appointment marked a “major turning point” in the fight against Islamophobia.
Stephen Brown, the organization’s CEO, said urgent action was needed, from reviewing policy in departments dealing with national security to working with civil society groups across the country to challenge Islamophobia.
One of Elghawaby’s first challenges may be Quebec’s secularism law, known as Bill 21, which prohibits some public servants, including teachers, from wearing markers of religion such as the hijab at work. The law affects not only Muslims but also other minority groups that wear head coverings.
There was outrage in December 2021 after a popular Muslim third-grade teacher was removed from her class and reassigned to a different role after wearing a hijab. Many civil rights groups have challenged the constitutionality of the law in cases currently being heard in courts.
There have been efforts in the United States to monitor and tackle Islamophobia globally. In 2021, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) introduced a bill to establish a special envoy within the State Department to lead the initiative.