Opinion: How a Quebec current affairs show offered a model for how to talk about Islamophobia

Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

It’s been a bruising two weeks in Quebec, to say the least. There was strong reaction to the Justin Trudeau administration’s appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s Special Representative for Combating Islamophobia, with a mandate to provide external advice and guidance to the federal government.

But Ms. Elghawaby’s earlier writings related to Quebec sparked a firestorm in the province. In a 2019 opinion piece, she and co-author Bernie Farber cited a poll in which they said that “the majority of Quebecers in their support for Bill 21 appear to be influenced not by the rule of law but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” restricts certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols while at work.

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Now, despite her sincere apologies for the pain her words caused, this has led to calls for resignation from four provincial and two federal parties; some have even called for the position itself to be abolished. In response to these allegations of defamation of Quebec and contempt for the people of Quebec, there have been counter-allegations of Islamophobia for the treatment of Ms Elghawaby, as well as Bill 21. It’s as if the two loneliness yelled at each other, which they did only tragically anchored in their positions.

So it was bold for Radio-Canada to jump into the fray with a televised debate on these same issues on the popular current affairs program Tout le monde enparle, moderated by the brilliant Guy A. Lepage. Guests were Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, the former mayor of Gatineau, Que., and Boufeldja Benabdallah, a co-founder and spokesperson for the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, where six Muslim believers were murdered in 2017.

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But while the two men differed on a number of issues, they did so with respect, with nuance, humor and a heartfelt appeal for mutual understanding.

Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin, who is now a columnist for La Presse, had written an article on the suffering of the people of Quebec under the yoke of the Catholic Church. His great-grandmother died at the age of 34 after her 13th pregnancy, of which eight were carried to term; His grandmother gave birth to 11 children, after which her priest blessed her for “doing her part.” These were the days when the Church controlled much of the state and the lives of Quebecers, and according to Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin, the harms it caused far outweighed the good. A friend of mine compares that era to Iran today. For this reason, a generation of Quebecers is averse to religion — particularly any foray into government.

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For Mr. Pednault-Jobin, Bill 21 is a compromise as it is not an outright ban on all government employees. He also explained that collective rights are more prominent in Quebec than in the rest of North America, where individual rights prevail. One might disagree, but it was useful – and necessary – for understanding why people support the law.

For his part, Mr Benabdallah eloquently shared his appreciation for the people of Quebec, the vast majority of whom have shown kindness to the Muslim community since the 2017 killings. He said he was “devastated” by Ms Elghawaby’s comments – they do not reflect his own experience – but as a man of peace he believes she should be given the opportunity to prove herself as she has apologized. As for that laïcitéMr. Benabdallah agreed that religion should not have any bearing on government affairs, but he disagreed with Bill 21. If it were as benign as its proponents claim, there would have been no need for the province to apply the disregard clause to both the Canadian as well as the Quebec Charter.

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On the issue of representative office itself, Mr. Pednault-Jobin drew on his experience as mayor and argued that money spent on local programs in the field is far more effective than funding a federal post. He also prefers a position that fights all forms of discrimination. In counterpoint, Mr Benabdallah pointed out that 11 Muslim Canadians were murdered in three separate attacks over a four-year period and that anti-Muslim sentiment has not stopped, necessitating specificity. But he also agreed on the need for an office to combat anti-Semitism.

And so it went: a palette of ideas offered with much wisdom and from cooler heads to think about. This juxtaposition of opposing views, humanely designed to promote understanding and respect, should be a model for the discussion of other contentious issues. In this way there is an opportunity for gradual convergence amidst conflicting histories within our human family. We don’t have to shout at each other; we have to listen.

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