Election coverage: Samira Laouni

There is a whole lotta ugly going on out there in the election coverage these days. (I’m thinking Canada, but this is true in the U.S. as well, and, come to think of it, likely anywhere else that might be having an election. But that’s a different story.)

Montréal-Bourassa NDP candidate Samira Laouni (pictured below right) is bearing the brunt of some of the most Islamophobic news coverage out there (even worse than what we usually cover on MMW.) Ms. Laouni, a Muslim woman who has a doctorate in economics from the Sorbonne, has lived in Quebec since 1998, and has worked in a number of jobs, non-profits and community volunteer projects.

The media coverage of Ms. Laouni’s campaign ranges from the confused and skeptical (a national parliamentary candidate who wears a headscarf? *gasp!*) to outright offensive. Some samples:

An article from the Montreal Gazette is probably the best of the bunch, giving the most biographical information about Ms. Laouni, and acknowledging that some people in Muslim communities (such as those scary extremists that keep Islamophobes up at night) might actually view her as “a bit of an iconoclast,” rather than as a fellow Islamist.

A Toronto Star article starts off by fixating on the headscarf (actually, that’s probably true for most the articles), and emphasises the confusion that most people apparently feel upon meeting Ms. Laouni. Either people really are staring at her with looks of utter bewilderment, or the writer of the article is just having a really difficult time getting past the idea that people might take a woman in a headscarf seriously. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Either way is disturbing.

Then there is the openly hostile. Ms. Laouni was interviewed on September 10 on 98.5fm, a Montreal-based radio station. (To listen to the interview, which was conducted in French, you’ll have to go to the radio show’s website and go back through the archives to September 10.) A summary of the interview was published in the Montreal Gazette. Throughout the interview, the host repeatedly tried to bait his guest, trying to make her come across as some kind of extremist. Impressively, Ms. Laouni managed to dodge every question, laughing off his assumptions, and reiterating her commitment to Canada and to her constituents. Some “highlights” (I really wish the computer had a “sarcasm” font):

  • The interview began with the host commenting on Ms. Laouni’s headscarf, which he referred to as “sexy.” She laughed it off, despite how completely inappropriate it is for virtually any interview to start with a comment that the interviewee looks sexy. Of course, the topic of the veil resurfaced numerous times throughout the interview, because really, it’s not like they had better things to talk about.
  • In a couple instances, the host asked Ms. Laouni how she felt about representing people like non-Muslims, Jews, and “adulterous” women, apparently trying to expose her Islamist political leanings. She calmly responded that she represents everyone in her constituency. When asked about how she would feel about a gay bar opening in her riding, she responded that she would have no problem with it. Even when the host tried over and over to try to get her to judge what would be considered a “bad” Muslim woman, Ms. Laouni didn’t fall for it and repeated that it is never her role to judge.
  • Asked about sharia law, she responded that it’s generally interpreted in oppressive ways, and that she would be against implementing it in Canada. She even went as far as to say that as MP, she would place the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms over the Qur’an. (It is clearly lost on the interviewer that this statement would likely lose support from every “Muslim extremist” out there.)
  • She was asked repeatedly about her involvement with the Canadian Islamic Congress, a very large national organisation. Her reply was that she is no longer involved, and was only ever involved as a volunteer, doing things like going to Hérouxville to speak to people about Islam, and supporting the family of Cédrika Provencher, a young girl from Quebec who has been missing for over a year.
  • The sexual comments keep coming; the host talks suggestively about how Ms. Laouni must have liked shaking his hand, and later mentions that in “Islamic law” (i.e., his misinterpretation of it), she would need four witnesses to prove it if he were to rape her. This is all said in a joking tone, but is still pretty problematic.

The combination of anti-Islamic comments that the interviewer made led the Canadian Union of Public Employees to call for his resignation, and for an investigation of hate comments.

Amazingly, the same show did a follow-up a few days later, with a representative from PointdeBasculeCanada.ca, and anti-Islamist website, in which they managed, through mind-bending leaps of logic, to re-position Ms. Laouni as an Islamic extremist. Quotes were taken out of context and twisted, and her connections to the Canadian Islamic Congress were re-emphasised, in order to link her to other supposed extremists. Although the focus was more on the apparent extremism of other people than on any of Ms. Laouni’s political platforms, the interview seemed constructed in a way to undermine all of the points that she had made, and to convey that despite all the points that she had made that might have made her seem like a good candidate, she was still fundamentally a religious fanatic.

This idea is taken up in many editorials that have been published, such as this one in the National Post. Samira Laouni’s candidacy is described as “worrying,” in part because of her “enthusiasm for sharia law.” While Ms. Laouni’s own politics are only barely described beyond this (unfounded) sentence, the article links her to the CIC, and then goes on to describe the “extremist” and “problematic” ideologies of Yvonne Ridley and Mohamed Elmasry. Ms. Laouni’s attempts at promoting “respect” and “tolerance” in Hérouxville are undermined in the article, which contrasts those ideals with a poem written by Ms. Laouni’s riding president. The next two paragraphs are largely focused on a website that the riding president – not Ms. Laouni herself – is apparently associated with. In other words, in the entire article, all of the accusations against Ms. Laouni are made through guilt by association, with not a single example of “Islamism” on the part of Ms. Laouni herself. From a journalistic standpoint alone, it is incredibly irresponsible. Looking at the broader implications of how this impacts Ms. Laouni and her campaign, it is alarming and insulting, to say the least.

All this, and I didn’t even tell you about most of the French-language stuff that’s getting said.

It’s worth giving some context to the particular case of Quebec. This is not to accuse all Quebeckers of being racist, or to imply that this Islamophobic panic couldn’t happen elsewhere, but other recent stories (the town of Hérouxville’s code of conduct for new immigrants, and headscarf bans in soccer and martial arts, stand out as some of the more prominent ones) do point to a particular polarisation happening in la belle province. A recent Globe and Mail article quotes a national study on Islamophobia and anti-Jewish sentiment:

Anti-Muslim sentiment rose overall in Canada, according to the Leger Marketing poll released Friday. Thirty-six per cent of the 1,500 respondents across the country expressed anti-Muslim sentiment, compared to 27 per cent a year ago. The difference was more notable in French Canada, where the number increased to 49 per cent from 42 per cent in 2007.

I’ll try to keep an eye on this, and make sure that we post updates here, either in follow-up articles or in the Friday links.

  • Philip

    well you gota give it to the islamophobes, they are not sexist. (yay for gender equality) I still remember when Sh Hamza Yusuf and Tarik Ramadan we called extremists. (rofl)

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    “the host talks suggestively about how Ms. Laouni must have liked shaking his hand, and later mentions that in “Islamic law” (i.e., his misinterpretation of it), she would need four witnesses to prove it if he were to rape her.”

    WTH? WTH? That’s all I can ask…

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    This is really disgusting, especially about the sexual comments. I CANNOT believe this guy; at least people called for his resignation, but…I mean…REALLY?!

  • Krista

    yeah. *shudder.* I will clarify that the sexual stuff was said jokingly, and the guy specified that he wasn’t ACTUALLY about to rape her – but seriously, that stuff is never funny.

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    Not sexist?? This guy is horribly sexist. He’s sexually harassing her on air. What he’s doing it out and out, clear cut sexual harassment. That is not only sexist but misogynistic!

    @ Jamerican Muslimah:

    I know!!!! I COULD NOT believe that he said that! “If I raped you…” WTF???

  • laila

    I can not believe this, SICK! Je n’ai pas compris! Your right about some of the things that are said in Quebec newspaper would shock you. This provience has the highest levels of intolerance towards immigrants and especially towards Natives/First Nations and it’s all under the guise of “protecting our French heritage”. They get away with so many freebies, I no longer care if they separate from Canada, actually a lot of people don’t care, that’s probably why they don’t have the silly vote.

  • Mel

    It just amazes me that people actually think a hijab is relevant to one’s ability to do a job. I want to believe that in the real world, most people just accept that some of their coworkers have different religious beliefs.

    That interviewer is deeply disturbing.

  • Philip

    Sobia -i meant he wasn’t sexist in terms of both men (Sh Hamza Yusuf and Tarik Ramadan) and women (Samira Laouni) have accusations thrown at them. So in those terms islamophobes are not sexist, they will throw proverbial excrement at muslims(be they male or female). As for the comments themselves, they were a (shocking)mix of sexism, religious bigotry and that male obsession with a piece of cloth.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Wow, see, I read Philip’s first comment sarcastically. As in, “Yeah, right, they’re not sexist.”

    There really should be a sarcasm font.

  • Krista

    @ Philip: I’m guessing what you meant was that Islamophobes target people equally, and are suspicious of Muslims whether they’re male or female?

    I agree with you on that (assuming that’s what you meant), but also agree with Sobia that this interview (and much of the other media coverage) is deeply sexist as well. Islamophobia often gets expressed in very gendered ways, so that while Muslim men are often suspected of being terrorists, Muslim women get assumed to be oppressed, submissive, or incapable of leadership (all of these assumptions have been made about Ms. Laouni.) Not to mention the actual sexual harassment that was directed at her as well in that interview.

    @ Laila: I agree with you that, as mentioned in my post as well, there are especially high levels of racism towards immigrants and towards indigenous peoples in Quebec. I think it’s a complicated history though. We can agree that the nationalistic sentiment stemming from the need to “protect the French heritage” has contributed to a lot of the racist atmosphere in the province at the moment, but does this negate the threat that French-Canadians in Quebec feel, when faced with the dominant English Canadian/American culture? In my mind, not necessarily. I also don’t think we can simply talk about “freebies.” But, it’s worth looking at this case as an example of the way layers of oppression can exist, and how one group’s attempt to stand up for itself against oppression can easily lead it to oppress others (and, of course, the French-Canadian identity is still originally premised on the theft of indigenous lands.) Because of course protecting one’s own culture shouldn’t happen at the expense of someone else’s.

    I do have to say that I was surprised at just how high the anti-Muslim sentiment is in “French Canada” (at least, according to the study that was quoted, and it is always important to take studies with a grain of salt.) If the study is anywhere close to true, then nearly half the population of “French Canada” feels negatively towards Muslims, which is pretty scary. (On the other hand, I’m not sure how they’re defining “French Canada” or how “anti-Muslim sentiment” was defined or measured, so I’m wary of making conclusions. If anyone knows more about this study than I do, I’d love to hear more on this.)

  • Krista

    Oops. Philip’s comment was posted as I was writing my comment, which means that the first part of my last comment isn’t that important anymore.

    @ Fatemeh: Maybe if there’s ever a slow day in the media’s reporting of Muslim women, we MMW contributors can team up and create a sarcasm font. Or, um, our great-grandchildren can take it on, since we’ll probably all be long gone before the media gives Muslim women a break :P

  • Zeineb

    Oh wow. I plan to go into politics myself someday, I can only hope I can deal with any possible opposition with the same grace as Ms. Laouni.

    Seriously, that’s terrible. Did the interviewer end up resigning?

  • Krista

    Nope, the interviewer is still going strong, as far as I know. I mean, this is the same guy who invited someone else on his show a couple days later to talk about how Samira Laouni is *actually* an Islamist despite what she said when he interviewed her, so I’m pretty sure he doesn’t see anything wrong with what he said. Of course, the sexual harassment-type comments are wrong whether she’s Muslim or not, but I’m guessing from his over-confident tone that it’s probably not rare for him to make those comments. Oh the joys of living in a society where sexism is so commonplace…

    Zeinab, you’re a brave woman for still planning on going into this field :)

  • Muslim in America

    Assalamu alaikom,
    I would welcome French-language media links, actually. I speak French and I’m interested to learn what’s being said. She handled it with far more grace than I would have been able to muster, personally. Particularly after he joked about raping her…

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Yeah. Rape isn’t funny. Excuse my language and everything, but what a fuckhead!

    @ Muslim in America: unfortunately, none of us speak French (that I know of!). If you could provide us with some links and give us a rundown of the issues with them, we’d love to read them (and really appreciate it)!

  • Krista

    @ Muslim in America: Wa alaikum salaam. I speak French and skimmed through a bunch of the stuff, but didn’t analyse much of it here because this is an anglophone audience… You should definitely try to listen to her radio interview (if you haven’t already), because that’s where her own grace in handling the crap thrown at her really shines through. I’ll post some French-language links here soon.

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  • http://www.mtl911truth.org Patrick


    Please inform yourselves about Marie-Claude Montpetit. She was an immigration consultant who has had her life ruined by Denis Coderre. Dr. Laouni was recently on the airwaves of 101.5FM CIBL in company with Marie-Claude Montpetit. Dr. Laouni is aware of Marie-Claude unbelievable saga. The intensifying attacks on Dr. Laouni are no doubt the work of Denis Coderre.

    To hear Marie-Claude tell her story in english, please go to:

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  • vincent

    This interviewer is complete rubbish, the station itself is a parody. But remember he mentionned rape to prove a point on shariah law

  • krista

    Yes, but (his flawed understanding of shariah law aside), I just don’t think it’s EVER appropriate to joke about “what would happen if I raped you.” But yeah, it sounds like that’s probably typical of that particular interviewer.

    For anyone interested in updates, Barbara Kay, who’s the same woman who wrote the National Post column that I referred to in my piece, really doesn’t seem to have anything better to do then bash Samira Laouni. First, she calls on Jack Layton to fire her (http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/09/26/193779.aspx), and later, she stands up for the interviewer, who is supposedly the victim of a “witch hunt” from people who have spoken out about his treatment of Ms. Laouni (http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/09/29/barbara-kay-quebec-shock-jock-is-accused-by-the-usual-suspects-of-a-hit-job-on-a-hijab.aspx).

    *banging head against wall*

  • Krista

    Holy crap! Here she goes AGAIN: http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/10/02/195888.aspx. Plus she also manages to label Toronto Centre NDP candidate El-Farouk Khaki as an “Islamist.” I know El-Farouk personally, and laughed out loud when I read that. If he’s an Islamist, then I’m DEFINITELY an off-the-charts extremist.

  • mochaccinochai

    Oh dear God…the National Post is such right-wing propaganda I don’t know how anyone can take it seriously.

  • Sobia

    @ Krista:


    Holy Crap! What an Islamophobe! I’m so sick of people getting away with Islamophobia and mindless fear-mongering. And I am SO GD sick of only the MCC being seen as good Canadian Muslims. I have respect for Mr Fatah, but I am so sick of them being the only good Muslims and the rest of us all being Islamists.

    I’m so mad at the article!! This article basically says that if you are not one of the Muslims mentioned in the article then you are a Islamist.

    And yeah, any kook who can call El-Farouk Khaki an Islamist definitely does not have all her marbles and SHOULD NOT be trusted.

  • Krista

    Yeah. Everything about that article is annoying. I’m writing a post on it for this week, so go read that too. But I also wanted to make one more comment about the article in relation to Samira Laouni. One of the people featured in it is quoted as saying that “Islam is my private life, my conscience…[but] my faith does not take precedence over my duties…to Canada and its constitution, which I embrace freely.” I swear there is almost an identical quote said BY Samira Laouni towards the end of her 98.5fm interview… I’ll try to find it and post it soon. Somehow she still gets seen as an Islamist though? Grrrrr…

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  • Marco

    Well, well… I cannot vote for the NDP because it is even more centralist than the LPC, plus as a fierce laïcist I oppose any religious symbols in the political sphere – such as former Bloc québécois MP Raymond Gravel wearing a clergyman collar in the Commons, or candidate Laouni wearing a scarf for a debate inside an University; to say nothing, of course, of having a crucifix in Quebec’s National Assembly (a novelty of the thirties that followed the Lateran Accords). « Church and State are two parallels that each go their way and shall never meet. » (Giolitti). So I would not vote for candidate Samira Laouni, obviously enough.That said, the aggressive desinformation campaign against her really stinks. To me it is not the Dutrizac interview of Laouni that is a problem : I love provocation and hate political correctness. No, for me the problem began the following day, when radio host Dutrizac – who is first of all very ignorant, thus very easy to manipulate – made that strange follow-up interview with someone from a strange group called Point de bascule. No professional reporter should ever accept this kind of half-baked nonsense, presenting a political activist to listeners as if the guy was some kind of scientific expert. Read pointdebasculecanada.ca carefully : these guys have the same objective than the islamists they so despise : to start a religious war. If there could be a “vicious circle of fascism and antifascism” (Giustizia e Libertà’s Carlo Levi), well then following the same pattern there appears to be a vicious circle of islamism and anti-islamism. Pointdebascule is exactly the type of reaction AlQaida wanted to create in Western countries.

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