The Real Problem With a Special Ambassador on Combatting Islamophobia

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The current controversy over the appointment of Almira Elghawaby as a Special Ambassador to Combat Islamophobia is focusing on all the wrong issues. There is certainly a problem, but it is not with the individual appointed to the post, it is with this whole concept. Ms Elghawaby could be forgiven for feeling that she is some sort of sacrificial lamb, or that she has been set up to fail, albeit unintentionally. Simply put, the government’s good intentions can not overcome a badly conceived solution to a very real problem.  

Worse still, the tidal wave of criticism directed at Ms. Elghawaby appears to have been both opportunistic and politically motivated. How else to explain Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Bloc leader Yves- Francois Blanchet’s over-the-top piling on of this well-regarded journalist and human rights activist, allegedly over one sentence in an OpEd critical of Legault’s Bill 21 that she co-authored with Bernie Farber, the former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, nearly four years ago.

Let us be clear. There may be specific issues with Ms. Elghawaby, but anyone appointed to this post would be opposed to Bill 21. How could it possibly be otherwise? Bill 21 is, in fact, discriminatory. Indeed, Premier Legault would hardly have bothered to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter if he believed his legislation did not contravene any basic rights and freedoms. He took this preemptive step, to avoid a negative court ruling, precisely because he knew it did. In essence, the premier argues that this violation of certain rights is necessary in the interests of secularity and the preservation of Quebec culture. The bill’s opponents disagree.     

In their article, Elghawaby and Farber cited numbers provided by a highly respected Quebec pollster: “the majority of Quebecers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment. A poll conducted by Léger Marketing earlier this year found that 88 per cent of Quebecers who held negative views of Islam supported (Bill 21).”  Note that the authors did not say most Quebecers are anti-Muslim. Nor did they say most Quebecers are racist. Yet that is what both Legault and Blanchet are suggesting. Politically this is a winning argument for them. At the same time it will be hugely damaging to the federal Liberals, no matter how they try and stickhandle this public relations disaster now.   

Lost in all of this political feeding frenzy is a reasoned discussion of why such a post was necessary in the first place. Yes, a variety of groups and activists in the Muslim community were calling for such an appointment. And yes, without doubt acts of violence and racism against Muslims have increased significantly in Canada in recent years, as they have elsewhere in the liberal democratic world. So has antisemitism. And yes, there is already a Special Envoy on Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. Former minister Irwin Cottler was appointed to that post by the Liberal government in 2020. So far he appears to have flown below the radar of political controversy. But that does NOT make either of these posts a good idea. On the contrary, their very existence is likely to lead other discriminated groups to call for a special envoy of their own. It is surely only a matter of time before we have a proliferation of them, making a mockery of the whole concept and undermining their very purpose. In short, while the underlying concern that motivated the creation of this post was both legitimate and praiseworthy, this particular solution was always a bad idea.

Similarly the idea on which it is based — identity politics — is a losing proposition. First and foremost, it divides society up into more and more groups when surely a primary objective of liberal democracy is to minimize societal discord by promoting equality of opportunity and equal treatment of all citizens.

Of course in reality this equality has not yet been achieved, in Canada or elsewhere. That is why, for example, progressive governments introduce affirmative action programs and employment equity legislation to help level the playing field for disadvantaged individuals, not groups. However even here, as countless studies have demonstrated, the American approach of imposing fixed quotas, (rather than the targets employed in Canadian legislation) has resulted in considerable backlash, accusations of reverse discrimination, endless litigation, and, in too many cases, the creation of a ceiling, rather than a floor, in representation.  

More broadly, I and many other academic experts and practitioners have argued that the most effective, and the least socially divisive, way in which to combat racism and discrimination is to treat all forms of this unacceptable set of attitudes and behaviour in the same way.  This means providing broadly-based guarantees of human rights, rather than focusing on specific minorities. It also means establishing a general rights-based discourse rather than a targeted one.[i] By contrast the Americans have taken a minority-rights approach that has resulted in far more societal discord, and a much more challenging path forward for various equality-seeking groups – blacks, Hispanics, women, the disabled or the LGBTQ community, for example – each of whom has had to fight this battle on their own.  Simply put, categorizing individual citizens as members of minority or disadvantaged groups often serves to isolate them them still further from mainstream society and slow their progress towards equality.

There is no doubt that racism and discriminatory behaviour are present in every region of Canada, or that violent acts motivated by such attitudes appear to be on the increase. The question for governments is how best to address this distressing trend. Many experts believe a more inclusive, human-rights-based approach will be more effective in the long run and far less divisive than the current penchant for identity politics.

Unfortunately, given this current trend in the opposite direction, the potential proactive leadership role that federal and provincial human rights commissions could play in education and the promotion of a human rights-based discourse has been entirely absent from the discussion. Nor has there been any attempt to launch the type of promotional campaign utilized by the EU or the UN, [ii] taking advantage of influential political actors (including more neutral figures such as former prime ministers, premiers or governors general), and especially those who are NOT members of targeted minority groups.  Surely the message Canadians need to receive is that protecting human rights and combatting racism – in all its forms — is everyone’s business.         

[i] See for example Miriam Smith. Political Institutions and Lesbian and Gay Rights in the United States and Canada. (New York: Routledge, 2008); B. Jeffrey. “The Evolution of Human Rights Protection in Canada” in G. DiGiacamo. (ed) Human Rights: Current Issues and Controversies. (Toronto: UTP, 2016). pp.3-29. and also B. Jeffrey. “Liberalism and the Protection of LGBT Rights in Canada” in M. Tremblay.(ed) Queering Representation: LGBTQ People and Electoral Politics in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2019. pp. 179-200. [ii]