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How Canada is fighting Islamophobia


Two years ago this month, a driver ran over a Muslim family as they were out for an evening walk in the Canadian city of London, Ontario. Police said the attack, which killed two parents, a child and a grandmother, was motivated by hate. The incident helped to prompt Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this year to create a new road to address Islamophobia. Amira Elghawaby is a journalist and human rights advocate, and she's now known as Canada's special representative on combating Islamophobia. Her position is to advise the government on how to better fight discrimination against the Muslim community. Amira Elghawaby joins us now from Ottawa. Welcome to the show.

AMIRA ELGHAWABY: Thanks so much, Ayesha, for having me.

RASCOE: So why did the Trudeau government feel it needed to create a role specific to Islamophobia?

ELGHAWABY: Canada now has the very sad distinction of being the number one country in the G7 with the highest number of attacks against Muslim communities - deadly attacks. And overall, there is palpable anxiety amongst our communities. And there is a similar office, a special envoy on antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance. And so the federal government saw that it would be important to establish such a similar office to combat Islamophobia.

RASCOE: I mean, can you talk a bit more about what it is like to be a Muslim in Canada today?

ELGHAWABY: Yeah. So consistently what I'm hearing from community members, particularly visibly Muslim women who wear the headscarf like myself, is a sense that when they're walking in their neighborhoods or on public transit or in other public spaces, that there is that sense that they may be targeted, either harassed or assaulted, even. And we've had various incidents over the years, as I've mentioned. In fact, out west in Alberta, we had a spate of targeted attacks against visibly Muslim Black women.

RASCOE: What can you do specifically to combat having women who wear headscarves feel unsafe, and the anxiety and the fears? What can you do to combat what's making them feel that way?

ELGHAWABY: Oftentimes, it's listening to communities themselves on how they are looking for solutions to create safety and inclusion within their own communities. For instance, I mentioned out west in Alberta. In fact, it was Edmontonian Muslim women who created a program called SafeWalk to provide support for any woman who wanted to have accompaniment. It's championing those types of solutions and ensuring that communities have the support that they need, financial and otherwise, to initiate these types of initiatives.

RASCOE: Are there some specific things that you hope to get done?

ELGHAWABY: Absolutely. Identifying that, having sort of a consistent approach to addressing hate crimes with law enforcement in communities - now, of course, we know that there is reluctance in many, many equity-deserving communities to go to police for support should they be targeted, and so making sure that we create space to find ways to ensure better protections for Muslim communities. But it's also to - you know, the flip side of this is the education around the diversity of Muslim communities, addressing the Islamophobia, the negative stereotypes and racism, and looking for those opportunities to both address the Islamophobia, but also to raise awareness and education about who our communities are.

RASCOE: I'd like to turn to a law in Quebec called Bill 21. It bans public servants, including police officers, teachers and others, from wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim headscarf, known as the hijab. Many want to see your office challenge Bill 21. Some say it was passed directly to target the Muslim community in Quebec. What's your office's position on Bill 21 now, and what do you hope to see happen?

ELGHAWABY: What we understand is that there will be various court challenges coming up. Currently, it is still before one level of court, eventually will make its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada. And at that point, the federal government has said it will be intervening.

RASCOE: In February, you apologized for writing that people in Quebec were influenced by what you called anti-Muslim sentiment for passing Bill 21. Like, why did you feel the need to apologize for that?

ELGHAWABY: You know, I think the role of this office is to create space to have difficult conversations. And I'm actually very hopeful from what I have heard since then, where people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, not just Muslims, who are saying that they want to figure out how we live collaboratively in a society with all of our various identities in a way that is meaningful to each other and which upholds and promotes human rights at the core of our sort of societal project here.

RASCOE: That's Amira Elghawaby. She is Canada's special representative on combating Islamophobia. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELGHAWABY: My pleasure. Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.