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Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

It has been a bruising two weeks, to say the least, in Quebec. Here, there has been strong reaction to the Justin Trudeau government’s appointment of Amira Elghawaby as Canada’s Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia, with a mandate of providing outside advice and guidance to the federal government.

But Ms. Elghawaby’s previous writings pertaining to Quebec set off a firestorm in the province. In a 2019 opinion piece, she and co-author Bernie Farber cited a poll in saying that “the majority of Quebeckers appear to be swayed not by the rule of law, but by anti-Muslim sentiment” in their support for Bill 21, which restricts certain public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols while on the job.

Now, this has unleashed calls for her resignation from four provincial and two federal political parties, in spite of her sincere apology for the hurt caused by her words; some have even called for the abolition of the position itself. In response to these accusations of Quebec-bashing and contempt for the people of Quebec, there have been counter-accusations of Islamophobia for the treatment of Ms. Elghawaby, as well as for Bill 21. It’s as if the two solitudes have been shouting at each other, which has only tragically entrenched them in their positions.

So it was bold for Radio-Canada to enter the fray with a televised debate around these very issues, on the popular current affairs show Tout le monde en parle, hosted by the brilliant Guy A. Lepage. The guests were Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, the former mayor of Gatineau, Que., and Boufeldja Benabdallah, a co-founder and spokesman of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, where six Muslim worshippers were murdered in 2017.

But while the two men differed on a number of issues, they did so respectfully, with nuance, humour and a heartfelt appeal for mutual understanding.

Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin, who is now a columnist for La Presse, had penned a piece on the suffering of the Quebec people under the yoke of the Catholic Church. His great-grandmother died at the age of 34, following her 13th pregnancy, of which eight had come to term; his grandmother gave birth to 11 children, after which her priest had blessed her for “doing her part.” These were the days when the Church controlled much of the state and the lives of Quebeckers, and according to Mr. Pedneaud-Jobin, the harms it perpetrated far outweighed the good. A friend of mine likens that era to present-day Iran. This is why a generation of Quebeckers is averse to religion – especially any foray into government.

For Mr. Pednault-Jobin, Bill 21 is a compromise, in that it is not an outright ban on all government employees. He also explained that in Quebec, collective rights are more prominent than in the rest of North America, where individual rights hold sway. One may not agree, but this was useful – and necessary – in understanding why people support the law.

For his part, Mr. Benabdallah eloquently shared his appreciation for the Quebec people, the vast majority of whom have extended kindness to the Muslim community since the 2017 murders. He said he was “devastated” by Ms. Elghawaby’s comments – they didn’t reflect his own experience – but as a man of peace, he believes she should be given the opportunity to prove herself, since she has apologized. As for the laïcité, Mr. Benabdallah agreed that religion should have no influence on government affairs, but he took issue with Bill 21. If it was as benign as its supporters claim, he said, there would have been no need for the province to use the notwithstanding clause to shield it from both the Canadian and Quebec Charters.

On the question of the representative job itself, Mr. Pednault-Jobin drew from his mayoral experience, arguing that money spent on local, on-the-ground programs would be far more effective than funding a federal post. He also preferred a position that would combat all forms of discrimination. As a counterpoint, Mr. Benabdallah pointed out that 11 Muslim Canadians have been murdered in three separate attacks over a four-year period, and that anti-Muslim sentiment has not stopped, making the specificity necessary. But he did also agree with the need for an office to combat antisemitism.

And so it went: a palette of ideas, offered up for reflection with much wisdom and from cooler heads. This juxtaposition of opposing views, served in a humane manner to enhance understanding and respect, should be a model for discussion of other contentious issues. In this way, there is an opportunity for a gradual rapprochement amidst colliding histories within our human family. We don’t need to shout past each other; we need to listen.

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