Montreal, Canada – It was a Sunday evening two years ago when an act “rooted in unspeakable hatred” changed one family forever and shook Muslim communities across Canada in the process.
The Afzaals were taking a walk in the city of London, Ontario on June 6, 2021, when a man ran them over with his truck in what authorities said was an intentional attack. Four members of the family were killed, and a young boy was seriously injured.
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The deadly assault sent shock waves throughout the country, where Muslims were still reeling from a series of fatal attacks at mosques and a rise of Islamophobic rhetoric.
It also fuelled calls for action and pushed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to first establish a summit on Islamophobia and then earlier this year to name a special representative to tackle the problem.
The appointment of Amira Elghawaby in January as Canada’s first special representative on combatting Islamophobia was welcomed by Muslim community advocates. But it faced fierce criticism in the province of Quebec, where politicians called for her removal for past criticism of a law banning religious garb in the public sector that has drawn widespread accusations of racism.
Here, Al Jazeera speaks to Elghawaby about the two-year anniversary of the London attack, the state of Islamophobia in Canada today, and what her job entails.
Al Jazeera: What impact did the London attack have on Muslims in Canada?
Amira Elghawaby: I think it’s really important to note that London’s Muslim communities are still carrying the weight of what happened two years ago. It’s still quite heavy on people’s minds.
[I have been] meeting with some of the young people, in particular, who have been organising for the past two years, trying to ensure that not only the city of London, but Canadians, don’t forget what happened to this beautiful, intergenerational family that was targeted for no other reason than their Muslim faith.
There is still a lot of pain and anxiety and fear that hate is still in our communities. Especially women who are visibly Muslim, who wear the hijab [headscarf], are sometimes a little more worried about being singled out. And so I think that those sentiments are held in other communities, as well.
In the first 100 days of my office, I’ve had an opportunity to have community engagements in the top provinces where Muslims reside, so Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. While I consistently hear that Canadian Muslims are proud to be in Canada and contributing … at the same time, there are concerns about Islamophobia.
And there is hope that the Afzaal attack hopefully really galvanised people to understand that this is a type of hatred that we have to work collectively to address.
Al Jazeera: There was strong criticism of your appointment, notably from politicians from Quebec. Do you feel that you can speak out against Islamophobia in that province specifically?
Elghawaby: I have been quite clear in speaking out against Islamophobia right across Canada as a phenomenon that all of us have to come together to address.
Muslims living in different provinces experience discrimination and Islamophobia in different ways, and so I think what’s critical is for this office to continue to engage, to continue to listen, to the lived experiences of Muslims in every single part of this country.
The role is to bring those experiences forward to fellow Canadians, to the federal government, in helping to support legislation and policies that are helping to ensure the inclusion of all people in this country.
Al Jazeera: What is the state of Islamophobia in Canada right now?
Elghawaby: I think it’s very important to emphasise that many, many fellow Canadians are very committed to inclusive, warm, welcoming societies. Overall, we have values in this country, we have a democratic tradition, [and] we have a sense of pluralism and inclusion that really is part of our identity as Canadians.
But the reality is as well that, for instance, Islam is the most negatively viewed religion in Canada, according to a recent poll (PDF) by Angus Reid. Or another poll by Leger a few months ago showed that while 46 percent of Canadians do see themselves as allies to Muslim communities, there’s still a significant number who don’t.
Unfortunately for 2020 to 2021 – the most recent statistics – we’ve seen a 71-percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to Statistics Canada. That only tells a partial story though, too, because a majority of people don’t report the hate that they experience.
We’re able to sort of piece together these statistics and these lived experiences to know that again, we certainly do have our work cut out for us.
The lives of three generations of the Afzaal family were taken in an appalling and cowardly terrorist attack two years ago. Today, we remember #OurLondonFamily – Talat, Salman, Madiha, and Yumna – and we stand with Fayez. We must, and we will, keep working to combat Islamophobia.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) June 6, 2023
Al Jazeera: What can be done to address and end Islamophobia in the country?
Elghawaby: I think acknowledging that this phenomenon is real and impacts peoples’ lives has been a very important and hard-fought step. It did take the Quebec City mosque massacre and then the attack on the Afzaal family for there to be this wide consensus across Canada that this is clearly a phenomenon.
The good news is that various levels of government have taken concrete action. Here in London, there is an action plan to disrupt Islamophobia … They have hired a Muslim liaison officer to work with communities and to look for ways to address this, to raise awareness and education.
We have this office that I now sit in … that communities asked for. So we are taking positive steps forward. There is acknowledgement that this is a phenomenon that we need to address – as we need to address any form of racism in our country. What’s so critical I think for all Canadians to understand of course is that hate against one community is really hatred against all of us.
Al Jazeera: What would you say is your mission as Canada’s special representative? What are you focusing on?
Elghawaby: Number one is to provide the policy advice to the government: to provide guidance, as outlined in the mandate, around how policies and legislation are impacting on Muslim communities, as well as to provide guidance and support to national security agencies on training.
Number two is about raising awareness about Islamophobia and its impacts, and working with community partners to look for ways to address the various issues that not only impact on Canadian Muslims, but impact on other minorities. For example, I touched upon issues of online safety, the rise of hate in Canada.
Then the third level of work is really around that community engagement, to constantly be meeting and hearing from Canada’s Muslim communities on the experiences that people are having, not just with regards to hate but even discrimination, whether in the workplace, whether in other aspects of life – and to bring forward community-informed solutions.
Al Jazeera: What would you want people to know about why there needs to be a special representative for combatting Islamophobia in Canada?
Elghawaby: I think it’s extremely important that Canada has taken this step to appoint a special representative on combatting Islamophobia because it signals the importance of addressing a phenomenon that has led to deadly violence in this country.
And we know that along the continuum of hate, deadly violence is sort of the very pinnacle and the worst of what hate can lead to. And so we have reached that pinnacle several times in this country – more than any other G7 [Group of Seven] country.
But beyond even that, the day-to-day discrimination and Islamophobia and the systemic forms of Islamophobia that do exist are also impacting on people’s lives. And so the federal government has signalled that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
And it sends a reassurance to communities that this is being taken seriously. I’m very committed to working with all government partners, as well as civil society, as well as all minority communities, to address hate and of course specifically to address Islamophobia.
Al Jazeera: How important is it to be able to freely speak out against policies that Muslim community members say are affecting them negatively – especially amid fears that these policies can lead to violence?
Elghawaby: I think that policymakers, as [those] having to be responsive to the needs of the community that they serve, will only be able to do that job if their basis for decision-making is reliant on the actual impact of those policies on people’s lives.
It’s not just an intention of what a law is meant to do, but it’s the impacts of policies and laws that are important to understand. So that if there are negative impacts of policies or legislation anywhere, there can be a course correction to ensure that everyone living in Canada is treated with dignity and respect, in their full rights as members of the society.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.