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Muslims watching Poilievre’s stance on Israel-Hamas war closely

Conservative leader reluctant to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza
Pierre Poilievre rises during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. A spokesman for a regional Muslim advocacy group says the Conservative leader’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war could complicate his party’s relationship with Muslim Canadians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

A spokesman for a regional Muslim advocacy group says Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war could complicate his party’s relationship with Muslim Canadians.

Nawaz Tahir of the Hikma Public Affairs Council in London, Ont., met Poilievre during the leader’s outreach efforts in southwestern Ontario last summer.

Tahir said he believes Poilievre has missed chances to show compassion for Muslims and that building ties could be “much more difficult now.”

Poilievre’s reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza came up in January when Conservative MP Garnett Genuis met members of Mississauga’s Pakistani and Muslim communities.

A man asked why Poilievre had not called for a ceasefire, saying it was, “Just a question from my heart to you,” as the discussion talked about better protecting children.

In a roughly 52-minute video shared on social media, Genuis admitted the party’s position may not be one that is “100 per cent” agreed with, but said defeating Hamas is “critical” to establishing lasting peace for Palestinians.

He was later questioned about why no Conservative MPs joined Liberal and NDP members who travelled to the West Bank last fall. Genuis said he wasn’t sure but that he had visited the Palestinian territories several years ago and that it was “a really eye-opening trip.”

Genuis appeared at the event to drum up support for a Senate bill that would compel pornography websites to verify the age of their users, aimed at preventing children from accessing sexually explicit material.

It’s a piece of legislation the Muslim community could play “a critical role” in advancing, Genuis said, even though their support has typically gone to the federal Liberals over his own party.

Tahir acknowledged being a Liberal supporter in the past, but now considers himself non-partisan, given his advocacy work. He said he’s donated money to the Liberals and the NDP — as well as the Conservatives, for whom he said he helped sign up around 500 Muslims during the last leadership race.

One of the ways Conservatives see a chance to gain inroads with Muslims is by championing “parental rights,” which refers to wide-ranging concerns about what children are learning in schools when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Those concerns have been echoed by several prominent Muslim organizations, which Poilievre and other Conservatives have promoted.

Ahead of Ramadan, dozens of Muslim organizations, mosques and groups signed an open letter with a different request: the National Council of Canadian Muslims asked MPs to stay away from events during the holy month if they couldn’t commit to taking several stances, including support for an immediate ceasefire and condemning some of the actions of Israeli forces.

Among the signatories were mosques and centres that Poilievre visited during Ramadan in previous years, according to images shared on social media. So far his social media channels don’t show any similar visits this month.

Conservative spokesman Sebastian Skamski said Poilievre has said clearly that Israel has a right to defend itself and that Palestinians need humanitarian relief “as a result of the war that Hamas has started.”

Skamski also pointed to a speech the leader delivered Tuesday in Montreal to the Beth Israel Beth Aaron congregation, where he addressed the matter head-on.

“I want you to know,” Poilievre the crowd, “I say all of these things in mosques. I do go to mosques. I love meeting with the Muslim people, they are wonderful people.”

He went on to say that when the issue of Israel is raised, “I say, ‘I’m going to be honest with you — I’m a friend of the state of Israel and I will be a friend of the state of Israel everywhere I go.’”

That runs counter to the approach taken by Justin Trudeau, continued Poilievre, accusing the prime minister of muddying the government’s position.

“While it might make for good politics to have one individual MP who says the right thing in order to get a seat back and keep Justin Trudeau in power, it does not solve the problem of having Canada take a right and principled position,” he said.

Conservatives have been trying to nurture the party’s relationship with Muslims as part of an overall effort to grow support among newcomer and faith communities.

Skamski said Poilievre has met with thousands of Muslim Canadians during his team as leader and has connected on their shared values of “faith, family and freedom.”

“You can’t talk to Muslim Canadians about faith, about family values, all of those things, while at the same time turning a blind eye to 30,000 dead,” Tahir said, referring to the number of people killed in Gaza since Israel began bombarding the territory in October.

Tahir said many were disappointed in Poilievre’s opposition to funding the UN aid agency UNRWA.

In January, Canada was one of 16 countries to freeze funding for the organization after Israel alleged a dozen of its workers participated in the Hamas attacks. Citing a not-yet-public interim report on the allegations, Canada restored its funding to UNRWA, opting to go ahead with a $25-million payment that’s due in April.

Poilievre also rejected the case South Africa brought against Israel in the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide. Tahir said that has left some people feeling dissatisfied.

Tory MPs voted against an NDP motion on the war in the House of Commons last week. The non-binding motion called on Canada to cease further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel and to pursue a two-state solution.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said in a statement that they “urge all MPs to take a stand on these issues” and that they’re in dialogue with all parties.

“We won’t forget,” Tahir said. “There’s no chance that the Muslim community will forget the Conservative position here.”

Andrew Griffith, a former director of multiculturalism policy for the federal government, said while Muslims are not a monolithic group, it’s likely Poilievre’s loud pro-Israel stance will cause some people to turn from the party, including in key ridings around Toronto.

However, he said, given the current polling numbers, it would be unlikely to do much damage to Conservative fortunes when the next election rolls around.

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