Fri 15 September 2023:
As a “visible” Muslim woman, Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s first anti-Islamophobia official, is aware that when she walks around in her neighbourhood, the majority of people are respectful and supportive.
But the fear of a “tiny minority” harboring misconceptions about Muslims and acting on those harmful views lingers in her mind.
“That worries people when they are standing in their mosques and prayers, worries us when we’re out on our streets or in public transit,” she told Anadolu in a video interview.
After becoming the country’s first special representative on combatting Islamophobia, Elghawaby is now looking for ways to make sure that the security needs of the community are met.
Canada has seen more attacks on Muslims over the past six years than any other G-7 country, according to her office.
Between 2021 and 2022, there was a 71% increase in hate crimes reported by Muslims to the police.
Later this month, her office, in partnership with various other organizations, will be launching a practical guide on anti-Muslim hate to ensure that the government and law enforcement can give Muslims the security they desire.
Based on a model first launched in Europe in 2020, the guide includes steps to improve engagement between the community and authorities.
“This guide is actually created by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe,” she said.
“It exists, but we’re going to launch it here in Canada as a way for our communities to engage with law enforcement and government, as well as for law enforcement themselves to make sure that they are doing all they can to provide the support that our communities, along with other minority communities, require.”
This would include recognizing anti-Muslim hate as a reality in Canada and emphasize the need for contingency plans for attacks on Muslims.
It also envisions increased security at mosques, especially for larger gatherings such as the Muslim Eid festival prayers.
Another key objective is to improve response times to hate crimes, including support for survivors and ensuring that the incidents are reported without delay.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Elghawaby moved to Canada when she was a baby and grew up in the capital Ottawa’s East End.
With a strong background in journalism and activism, she was selected for the position-a four-year tenure-by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this January.
This role was created following recommendations at an anti-Islamophobia summit months after the killing of the Afzaal family, she said.
Three generations of the Pakistani-origin family were killed in Ontario in 2021, when a pickup truck plowed into them as they walked along a road in London, a small city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of Toronto.
The victims were Salman Afzaal, a 46-year-old physiotherapist; his wife Madiha, 44, who was working on her doctorate in engineering at London’s Western University; their daughter Yumna, a 15-year-old honor-roll student; and Salman’s mother Talat, 74, the family matriarch.
The sole survivor was the couple’s 9-year-old son.
Nathaniel Veltman, the driver, is now on trial in a Canadian court, charged with four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and terror charges.
“This office was created in order to provide advice and guidance to the federal government on how we can address systemic Islamophobia, as well as the type of hate and violence that have impacted our communities quite significantly,” said Elghawaby.
She pointed out that her position is an advisory one, primarily focused on raising awareness. She meets with communities to hear out their issues and what they expect from authorities, conveying them to the federal government.
Elghawaby said there is a lot of focus on Islamophobia in the country at the moment, particularly with the start of the trial of the man accused of killing the Afzaal family.
“We definitely have to address the rise in Islamophobia and Islamophobic violence that, sadly, we have seen here in this country,” she said.
Over the past several years, there have been several major incidents of hate crimes against Muslims, including attacks on Muslim Black women in Alberta, the 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City that killed six worshippers, and the stabbing in Toronto in 2020 of a mosque’s volunteer caretaker.
A general and steady increase in hate crimes has been reported to police, including a rise of online hate.
“What we can see from the numbers over the past, not just the past few years, but even going further is a general and steady increase in what has been reported to police as being hate crimes, but which only tells part of the story,” said Elghawaby.
“So what we know is that it is a serious issue that Canada has international obligations to address human rights and to protect its communities. It has national obligations and, certainly, this is an area of focus for this office.”
About the recent wave of Quran burnings in European countries, she said while her mandate is for domestic affairs, her office “will pay attention and look at what’s happening elsewhere.”
Regarding laws against Islamophobia, Elghawaby explained that Canada has specific legislation that explains what is considered to be a hate crime.
But there have been many discussions about whether that is sufficient.
“Every time a criminal act happens where there is that bias motivation that is targeting a particular community or member of that community based on their identity, whether it’s their gender, whether it’s their race, their religion … then that is taken into consideration in the sentencing,” she said.
About the murder of the Afzaal family, she said the Muslim community was “just heartbroken over what happened” and the ongoing trial is “extremely heavy” for them.
People are anxious and the trial will bring back a lot of painful memories, as well as more information about the motivation of the attacker, she said.
Elghawaby asserted that Canadians are hopeful about the outcome of the trial.
“There’s a lot of faith in fellow Canadians that justice will be served in this case. The commitment to addressing Islamophobia is a real one and there’s a great deal of hope,” she added.
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