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Amira Elghawaby makes her way to meet with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 1.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

After an uproar in Quebec, thirty of the province’s civil-society leaders signed a statement on Friday supporting Amira Elghawaby’s appointment as Canada’s special representative on combatting Islamophobia.

The signatories, including celebrated philosopher Charles Taylor and civil-rights lawyer Julius Grey, were responding to calls from across Quebec’s political spectrum for Ms. Elghawaby’s resignation after it emerged that she had once written that a “majority” of Quebeckers appear to be swayed by prejudice against Muslims in their support of the provincial secularism law, known as Bill 21.

She later said that the controversial line was not her opinion, but rather a description of the findings of a Léger poll.

The controversy has raised difficult questions about religion’s place in public life, the province’s openness to diversity, and perceptions of “Quebec bashing” by the rest of Canada.

“We are sensitive to the concerns that have been raised since her appointment,” reads the statement, “but the challenge before her is a considerable one and we believe that Ms. Elghawaby should be given the opportunity to assume and pursue the mandate for which she was appointed.”

After several days of outrage in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing her appointment, Ms. Elghawaby apologized on Wednesday for having “hurt people in Quebec.” She also met with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet in Ottawa and agreed to meet with provincial politicians in Quebec.

Still, Mr. Blanchet and Quebec Premier François Legault stood behind their calls for her resignation Thursday, even as Mr. Trudeau continued to back the former journalist and activist. Other critics pointed to a Twitter post by Ms. Elghawaby saying the assertion that French Canadians were Canada’s largest group to be victimized by British colonialism made her want to “puke.“

Signatories said in interviews with The Globe and Mail that the statement in her defence was not meant as an endorsement of her comments.

“The letter has nothing to do with approval or disapproval of what she said,” Mr. Grey, the civil-rights lawyer, said. “It is against the idea that certain things can never be said and that once you said them, you can never be named to a public function.”

According to Mr. Grey, Ms. Elghawaby’s statement about Islamophobia in Quebec “is a debatable one, as much as Mr. Legault’s statement that there is no systemic racism in Quebec.” Such remarks, the lawyer said, should lead to open discussions, not disqualify those who utter them.

The controversial statements “irritate me incredibly,” said Charles Taylor, emeritus professor of philosophy at McGill University and former co-chair of a government commission on the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities. Nonetheless, Ms. Elghawaby should be given a chance to learn about the “misunderstandings” between English and French-speaking Canadians that lay behind her comments before being asked to resign, Prof. Taylor said.

The academic said there is no doubt that Bill 21, which bans certain public servants – including police officers and teachers – from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs while at work, is discriminatory, but that prejudice against Muslims extends well beyond Quebec.

“There is massive Islamophobia in the Western world, and anybody who pretends that’s not the case in a society is either a liar or a moron,” Prof. Taylor said.

In a 2021 decision, Quebec Superior Court largely upheld the secularism law but acknowledged that it has serious and negative – even “cruel” – consequences for those who wear religious symbols in public, and negatively impacts Muslim women “first and foremost.”

When asked about Mr. Blanchet’s call for the special representative on Islamophobia position to be abolished or for any candidate to have a “neutral” view of Bill 21 as a prerequisite, Prof. Taylor laughed. “I don’t know how anybody who is not totally ignorant of Bill 21 could have a neutral view of the law,” he said.

The signatories include Boufeldja Benabdallah, co-founder of the Quebec City mosque where six Muslim men were killed in 2017, Samaa Elibyari of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, and Red Coalition Founder Joel DeBellefeuille. The statement said that they “stand ready to contribute to a constructive dialogue around these complex and sensitive issues and are committed to countering biases of all kinds.”

Follow Frédérik-Xavier Duhamel on Twitter: @FxDuhamelOpens in a new window
Follow Eric Andrew-Gee on Twitter: @ericandrewgeeOpens in a new window

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