by Arsalan Iftikhar
February 2, 2023
In January 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would appoint Amira Elghawaby to become Canada’s first special representative for combating Islamophobia to tackle racism, discrimination and religious intolerance faced by millions of Canadian Muslims. “Diversity truly is one of Canada’s greatest strengths, but for many Muslims, Islamophobia is all too familiar,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement announcing the appointment. “We need to change that.”
Amira Elghawaby, a journalist, human rights advocate and member of the Canada Race Relations Foundation, was named to the position to provide advisory support to government initiatives on Islamophobia. In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that “in her capacity as Special Representative, Amira Elghawaby will fill the position to be an advisor, expert and representative to support and strengthen the government’s efforts to combat Islamophobia, systemic racism, racial discrimination and religious intolerance.”
Only four days after Trudeau’s announcement, certain right-wing voices across Canada (led by the ultra-nationalist province of Quebec) immediately called on Ms. Elghawaby to resign because of her opposition to Bill 21 which is a blatantly anti-Muslim law. It is similar to European “hijab bans” targeting Muslim religious freedom) as it prohibits some public employees- including Muslim teachers- from wearing “markers of religion” such as the hijab at work. An August 2022 study found that 3 years of Bill 21 has had a “devastating” impact on religious minorities and Quebec federal judge Marc-André Blanchard wrote in an April 2021 decision that all of the “evidence undoubtedly shows that the effects of [Bill] 21 will negatively impact Muslim women first and foremost” with “disproportionate consequences”.
The need for an Islamophobia envoy for Canada was also important because two high-profile cases of anti-Muslim mass murder in recent years which made global headlines. In January 2017, a right-wing 20-something Trump-supporting white nationalist named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a mosque in Quebec City during evening prayers and opened fire murdering 6 innocent Muslim worshippers (whose names were Ibrahima Barry, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Azzeddine Soufiane, and Aboubaker Thabti) as they prayed together with nearly 50 other Muslim worshippers that fateful evening.
Although he could not vote in American elections, Bissonnette was a huge fan of Donald Trump, proudly posting selfies on social media while wearing a red “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat. After the mosque massacre, Quebec City police found that Bissonnette had spent hours on the internet having searched for Donald Trump a grand total of 819 times on Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Facebook shortly before his murderous act.
Four years later in June 2021, the country of Canada was jolted again when a white man jumped into his pickup truck one day in London, Ontario and decided to slam his truck directly into the path of a nearby family; killing 4 out of 5 members of a Canadian Muslim family from Pakistan who were simply taking a walk in their neighborhood. “Let me be clear: This was an act of mass murder, perpetrated against Muslims and rooted in unspeakable hatred,” said the local mayor and news of the attack drew condemnation from leaders around the world; including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who tweeted that he was “horrified” by the news and voila– Canada now has a brand-new envoy for Islamophobia today.
Similarly, the United States government should appoint an official envoy for Islamophobia because of decades of anti-Muslim hate crimes, discriminatory legislation, and racist political rhetoric targeting American citizens of the Islamic faith over the years. In 2015, three Muslim college students (23-year old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife Yusor Mohammad, and her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu Salha) were brutally executed point-blank by a 46-year-old white neighbor who made disparaging comments about Islam on social media, but blamed his triple murder on a “parking dispute” with the 3 Muslim college students.
We in the United States should also appoint an Islamophobia envoy mainly because we already have a State Department envoy for Anti-Semitism since 2004 for the Jewish community. The “Office of the Special Envoy To Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism” was created by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 and the first special envoy for Anti-Semitism (Gregg Rickman) was sworn into office in May 2006 for the remainder of the George W. Bush administration. Both Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia can stem from the same hatred which was clearly evident in April 2019 when the Jewish community of Poway, California were victims of a brutal act of anti-Semitic terrorism when a 19-year-old white supremacist opened fire inside a synagogue with an AR-style rifle, killing a 60-year-old woman named Lori Gilbert-Kaye as she tried to protect her rabbi. Only a few weeks before the California synagogue attack, that same 19-year-old white supremacist also admitted responsibility for an arson attack at a nearby Islamic mosque in Escondido, California which shows a nexus between white supremacy when it comes to hatred of Jewish and Muslim people together.
At the US governmental level, the closest current parallel that we have is the United States Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which was established in 2008, but really has had no impact in terms of addressing rising global Islamophobia around the world.
According to the Pew Research Center, the world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% in the next 20 years alone, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030. So if America already has an envoy to combat Anti-Semitism for the Jewish global population of ~15 million people (which represents ~0.2% of the world’s population), then it would also probably make sense to have an envoy for Islamophobia for the world’s 2.2 billion Muslims who represent almost one-third (over 31%) of the world’s population.
In order to become a reality though, any American envoy for Islamophobia would need the combined political will of both the Democratic and Republican parties. But if we simply look at recent political history, that might be a daunting political task.
Most notably, we have seen a Republican president proudly banning Muslims from entering the country while telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “I think Islam hates us.” Former Republican presidential hopefuls have fanned the flames of Islamophobia by calling Sharia a “mortal threat to the survival of the United States” (former House speaker Newt Gingrich) and publicly described Islam as a “religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet” (former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee). Similarly, other previously Republican presidential candidates have proposed requiring a loyalty oath for Muslims (pizza magnate Herman Cain) and have even said that Muslims should not be allowed to run for president (former brain surgeon and Trump HUD Secretary Ben Carson). Most recently, we have right-wing American politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene who once tried to force Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MN) to re-swear their oaths of office on a Bible instead of a Quran. Greene also attended an event organized by a white nationalist where attendees cheered Vladimir Putin and praised Adolf Hitler. With such growing Islamophobia everywhere, we as Americans would be remiss if we didn’t appoint a special envoy on Islamophobia like our Canadian neighbors to the north.
According to the official State Department website, the overall goal of the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism is to “advance U.S. foreign policy on antisemitism and develop & implement policies and projects to support efforts to combat antisemitism” worldwide. A worthy and noble goal, since Islamophobia continues to grow alongside Anti-Semitism with the rise of global white supremacy and right-wing ethno-nationalists everywhere; the United States now has the moral obligation to nearly 10 million American Muslim citizens to form a State Department envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia as well.