For more than a week, the nomination by Justin Trudeau of Amira Elghawaby as special advisor in the fight against Islamophobia has created a storm. This is yet another symbolic and empty gesture by the Trudeau Liberals to portray themselves as fighters against oppression. The Liberals have become experts at this type of distraction. Meanwhile, the nomination brought a big backlash in Quebec, with the CAQ nationalists leading the charge to demand her resignation for past comments on Quebec. The CAQ has once again been able to portray itself as the defender of the nation, reawakening the worst of the reactionary columnists and right-wing nationalists in the process, who go as far as to reject the term “Islamophobia” itself.
The following article was published this morning on the website of the Quebec Marxists, La Riposte socialiste, giving a Marxist point of view on these events. The role of Marxists in Quebec is to aim our fire at the Quebec ruling class and its parties, starting with the CAQ. The role of Marxists in English Canada is to denounce our own anglo-chauvanist ruling class, and expose the hypocrisy of Justin Trudeau and co.
The Amira Elghawaby affair has been making headlines for over a week. Identitarian nationalists, with the CAQ and right-wing commentators Richard Martineau and Mathieu Bock-Côté in the lead, are leading a crusade to have Elghawaby resign, as she has been appointed Canada’s new special representative in charge of the fight against Islamophobia. They accuse her of having professed hatred of Quebecers in the past. But the identitarian nationalists have managed to drag the Quebec Liberal Party, columnists from La Presse, and almost the entire Quebec political and media class into their struggle. Québec solidaire (QS), for its part, is wavering and bending under this pressure as well.
A few weeks ago, the sit-ins of distressed nurses and the pitiful state of the health care system were on everyone’s lips. This story comes as the perfect diversion for François Legault and the CAQ: nothing better than a good little nationalist war against the federal government to make people forget the problems of workers that the CAQ is unable to solve. Trudeau is also taking advantage of this divisive debate to give himself a falsely progressive air. This story has reactionary consequences all the way through.
The same nationalists who like to denounce the “wokes” and their “cancel culture” definitely want to “cancel” Elghawaby. On Jan. 31, less than five days after her appointment, the National Assembly had adopted a motion calling for her dismissal without opposition (QS abstained). The next day in Ottawa, the Bloc Québécois also demanded her departure.
It is fascinating to see how quickly the entire Quebec political establishment joined the fray. Yet no one called for the departure of CAQ Labour Minister Jean Boulet when he falsely claimed that the Omicron variant was arriving through immigrants crossing Roxham Road, nor when he peddled the racist lie that 80 per cent of immigrants do not work. No media called for the resignation of Premier François Legault when he associated immigration with extremism and violence in the last election campaign.
Even before that, there was no political crisis when, in 2016, Jean-François Lisée, then leader of the PQ, suggested that women wearing the burqa might be hiding bombs. Nor was there any outcry in the National Assembly when, in 2021, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet insinuated that federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra was linked to the political Islam movement, repeating a racist lie from the far-right fake news site Rebel News.
These examples could be multiplied endlessly. The nationalists who have been crying foul for the past week have no right to lecture anyone about prejudice and hate. For years, they have been constantly spreading the worst prejudices about immigrants, and about Muslims in particular. And it is precisely this background that is entirely absent from the critique of Ms. Elghawaby’s comments.
Why the outcry?
What did Amira Elghawaby say that was so shocking? In 2019, in an opinion piece she co-authored in the Ottawa Citizen on Bill 21, she said, “The majority of Quebecers seem to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment.” She relied on a poll at the time that showed 88 per cent of Quebecers who viewed Islam negatively supported Bill 21—as the next sentence in the op-ed, which the media failed to quote in context, revealed. The same poll showed that 59 per cent of Quebecers supported some form of ban on the wearing of religious symbols by certain government employees.
This text was written in the context of the CAQ’s adoption of the infamous Bill 21, which prohibits people in positions of authority, including teachers, police officers, and judges, from wearing religious symbols. But this law did not come out of nowhere.
It is the product of more than a decade of incessant “debates” about Islam and immigration, in the wake of Western military interventions that have destabilized the Middle East and provoked a wave of refugees and Islamist terrorism. We have seen the fabrication of a crisis around “unreasonable accommodation” by immigrants, which led to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in 2008. For example, the village of Hérouxville had adopted a code of conduct for immigrants, informing them that stoning women, burning them alive, or performing female circumcision on them was prohibited in the municipality. Jumping on a recommendation of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission to strengthen the secular nature of the state, the Parti Québécois, the CAQ and its predecessor the ADQ, and the nationalist columnists of Le Journal de Montréal continually promoted the idea that there was a huge problem of lack of secularism in Quebec. Anyone who was politically aware during this period will recall that the whole “debate” revolved almost exclusively around the hijab, burqa, and niqab.
The nationalist rhetoric that the wearing of veils by a few government employees would undermine secularism was accepted as fact, without any evidence. This was the time when then-PQ leader Jean-François Lisée could say that there were “niqabs everywhere”, and the CAQ took the trouble to make a television ad against the wearing of chadors. An Islamophobic discourse was normalized and spread in the media. During this period, hate crimes soared, particularly against Muslims. Pigs’ heads were laid in front of mosques. Veiled women were assaulted in public. All of this hate culminated in the attack on a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, which killed six people. To say that there was “anti-Muslim sentiment” surrounding the passage of Bill 21 in Quebec is therefore accurate.
Yet, at the time, virtually no politician or prominent media personality dared to firmly denounce the Islamophobic prejudices peddled by the CAQ, the PQ of Pauline Marois and Jean-François Lisée, and their token columnists. This includes the leadership of Québec solidaire, which argued until 2019 (before members changed the party’s position) for a “compromise” to ban religious symbols only for judges, police, and prison guards. In the absence of a strong counter-argument on the mainstream political and media scene, it is not surprising that a majority of Quebecers have been led to mistakenly believe that there is a problem with the wearing of religious symbols and that a few people should be prevented from having access to public jobs.
Since the scandal surrounding Elghawaby’s appointment began, the identity nationalists’ crusade has followed its own dynamic. The Bloc Québécois is now demanding not only her resignation, but even the abolition of the position of representative in charge of the fight against Islamophobia. Yves-François Blanchet says Trudeau has made the position “an instrument hostile to Quebec’s identity and consensual values.”
But the identitarian nationalists do not stop there. They go so far as to question the term “Islamophobia” itself! A letter signed by 200 Quebec personalities goes in this direction, stating that it is a “militant term”.
Perhaps the worst example of this trend was an interview by Le Devoir columnist Christian Rioux with Richard Martineau on Feb. 6. In an exchange worthy of the worst years of “debate” on religious symbols, Rioux said, “Elghawaby says Quebecers are suspicious of Muslims; but listen, have you seen what has been happening in the Muslim world for half a century?”
Martineau, on the other hand, said, “‘Phobia’ is an irrational fear, that is, being afraid for no reason. Well, I have reasons to be afraid of Islam!” And then, saying that you can’t compare antisemitism and Islamophobia, and that people like Elghawaby cultivate an ambiguity about the term Islamophobia, Rioux said, “Ms. Elghawaby, it’s her job to do that! That is, the more racism there is, the more work she will have! So you have to create racism, you have to manufacture racism, in societies that are still less racist than most others.”
Rioux then talks about the “Islamized suburbs” in France, and this “way of life opposed to normal French civility”. He links this to some outreach activities eventually organized by Elghawaby, and explains: “Ms. Elghawaby with her workshops that you are talking about, this kind of re-education of the people, in the end what will it be? [She] will be the agent for the development of a form of Islamism, an Islamic ghetto in Quebec.”
This delusion in which a Muslim woman would have an interest in the existence of racism and a federal official would like to Islamize Quebec is not accidental. Legault was already saying in 2019 when Bill 21 was tabled that there was no Islamophobia in Quebec. After more than 15 years of hate speech against Muslims, Islamophobia is becoming more and more normalized.
The reality is that all these people have a vested interest in keeping these kinds of debates going as long as possible. The CAQ has been using these debates for the past four years and more to portray itself as the great defender of the nation insulted by English Canada, allowing it to distract from its unpopular policies and inaction on the problems of workers and the poor. Every opportunity is taken to re-emphasize the defence of Bill 21, to stir up conflict with the federal government, and to score political points on the backs of minorities. The PQ and the Bloc use these issues to maintain some semblance of political relevance. Columnists and radio hosts say the crudest things to maintain their ratings and readership.
And all the while, prejudice takes root and minorities suffer. As one teacher said shortly after the CAQ was elected in 2018, “Every time they start talking about Muslim women in the media, we have problems in the street.” There it is, the real threat in Quebec.
If identity nationalists are clearly looking forward to a new conflict with the federal government, Justin Trudeau must also be rubbing his hands. When 67 per cent of Canadians believe the country is broken, when many blame his government for inaction on health care and rampant inflation, he has a vested interest in creating a good diversion as well. The Liberals are looking for good press and to put on their anti-Islamophobia face. But don’t think for a second that they are taking this issue seriously, and that a public service position will improve the lot of Muslims in Canada.
Beneath the rhetoric of “multiculturalism” and “inclusion” lies the fact that it was the Liberal Party that launched the war in Afghanistan, which was accompanied by extensive anti-Muslim propaganda. In 2015, the party also supported Bill C-51, which expanded police and intelligence powers to harass Muslims under the guise of “fighting terrorism.”
We can be sure that a position to address Islamophobia will not fundamentally change the oppression of Muslims in this country. Trudeau’s attitude on the issue of Islamophobia reflects his general approach to combating oppression: tears, fine words, meaningless or symbolic gestures, but no concrete change.
In reality, Elghawaby is simply helping Trudeau to give himself a progressive veneer. And admittedly, her angry article is tinged with illusions in the Canadian state and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in Justin Trudeau’s alleged commitment to protecting minorities. Her comments also point to common prejudices in English Canada: “Canada’s promise of peace, equity and social inclusion must not be compromised by those who permit ignorance to shape our society.” In the context of the article, the implication is that Canada is this fine democracy that protects minorities, while Quebec is a reactionary bulwark. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not only in Quebec that hate crimes against Muslims have increased in recent years—the rest of Canada has not been spared. Maintaining the Liberal illusion that Quebec in particular is the problem can only reinforce Quebec bashing and divisions between working people in Quebec and English Canada.
On another occasion, Elghawaby also tweeted, “I want to vomit” when reading a text that stated that French Canadians were the group that suffered most from British colonialism. This exaggerated and contemptuous remark perpetuates the Quebec-bashing discourse, which tends to minimize or outright deny the historical oppression of Quebecers. This kind of prejudice only gives more ammunition to identity nationalists.
As identity nationalism has intensified in Quebec in recent years, the Canadian political establishment has slyly seized the opportunity to absolve itself of its own racism by engaging in Quebec bashing. For example, in 2021, when an Islamophobic attack took place in London, Ont., Canadian politicians and media were quick to blame Bill 21. This was a gift to the Quebec nationalist right to present itself as a victim of English-Canadian contempt. In the end, this show of sulkiness on both sides deflected the debate from the attack in particular and the Islamophobia of the ruling class in general.
In reality, the “two solitudes” are not so far apart. Identity-based nationalism and Quebec bashing are mutually reinforcing, and are the same weapon used by business as a smokescreen to distract workers from pressing issues. It is certain that a new Quebec-Canada war is good for both Legault and Trudeau. One puts on his cape of superhero defender of Quebec, and the other his mask of great liberal humanist! But on both sides, their costumes reek of hypocrisy. The ruling class, both blue and red, doesn’t give a damn about the interests of workers and the oppressed.
Québec solidaire unable to resist
There is an old saying in the socialist movement that “the main enemy is at home”. While the left and the labour movement in English Canada should direct their criticism at their own English-speaking ruling class, in Quebec it is our own ruling class and its parties that must be exposed first and foremost. Québec solidaire, on the other hand, has been dithering and finally siding with the CAQ, once again.
At the outset, however, Québec solidaire MNA Haroun Bouazzi deserves credit for explaining the distraction of the topic on Twitter: “It’s back to school at the [National Assembly] and the CAQ government has no clear plan for the fair energy transition, for public schools, for the crisis in our hospitals? Legault’s strategists: ‘Look! There! A woman wearing a veil!’ #diversion #voilerlincompetence”.
But the QS leadership slipped and fell into the trap of trying not to offend the identity nationalists too much. When the motion for Elghawaby’s resignation was presented in the National Assembly, the QS members chose to abstain rather than vote against a motion that reeked of hypocrisy. Then party spokesperson Manon Massé eventually contradicted Bouazzi, saying she did not believe Legault was making a diversion with this issue.
But that wasn’t enough for the identitarian nationalists, who attacked the party in concert. Nationalist historian and Journal de Montréal columnist Frédéric Bastien said, “Instead of being in solidarity with their nation, they are in solidarity with Islamists!” Parti Québécois Leader Paul Saint-Pierre-Plamondon also accused QS of “lacking solidarity” with Quebecers. On the defensive, QS finally gave in to the nationalist rhetoric, and on Feb. 7 called for Elghawaby’s resignation.
On the same day, the QS members also tabled a motion in the National Assembly to recognize the existence of and fight against Islamophobia, which was blocked by the CAQ. While this made it clear that the government does not even want to recognize Islamophobia, QS’s dithering can only give the image of a party unable to take a firm stand.
On “identity” issues, the QS leadership is constantly caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, QS has its origins in the Quebec anti-capitalist left. The idea of Quebec “solidarity” comes from this will to fight against exploitation and the different forms of oppression. On the other hand, QS seems to believe that the CAQ and PQ electoral base is cemented behind the prejudices conveyed by these parties, and so the party constantly bends to nationalist pressure to supposedly win them over. The QS leadership tries to please everyone, but the result is to please no one.
CAQ Education Minister Jean-François Roberge illustrated the pressure on QS when he said, “When Quebecers are insulted by the federal government, all Quebec MNAs must stand up. It’s not a diversion, it’s a question of national pride.” QS’s left-wing nationalist posture unfortunately too often leads it to make concessions to right-wing nationalists. The only ones who gain anything from this are the latter, who manage to project the image of a cross-class consensus around their position.
Quebec bashing made in Quebec
What is the result of this media storm? Workers in Quebec and Canada are once again divided on national lines. In Quebec, Legault has once again been portrayed as the patriarch of the Quebec nation, while it seems that there is unanimity behind him. Reactionary columnists have begun to pour out their hatred again, even attacking the very concept of Islamophobia. A new round of sterile “identity” debates relegates inflation, the hospital crisis, unaffordable housing, and the many other serious problems of the working class to second place.
There is also a new backlash against anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia activists. This whole thing has reactionary consequences from start to finish. Rather than participating in this grand distraction, QS should have strongly denounced it. Without taking the side of Trudeau and the Liberals, it should have explained the reactionary consequences of the crusade started by Legault.
It is through ridiculous episodes like this that Legault maintains his image as a defender of Quebecers. Rather than playing along, we need to expose the CAQ and the ruling class it represents. Every time the CAQ pulls out the “national unity” card or tries to foment divisions along identity lines, we should respond by highlighting the class divisions.
The Quebec ruling class is attacking the nurses, letting the mould build up in our schools, and imposing wage cuts in the public service. Legault and other buffoons in the service of the bosses want us to forget that they are the first to do Quebec bashing, by destroying our services and the quality of life of Quebec workers.
We must repeat: the Quebec ruling class is the primary enemy of the Quebec working class, and it is our fundamental task to fight it.