CMAJ retracts ‘Islamophobic’ letter to the editor

Lena Weib

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has officially retracted a letter to the editor which called hijabs “instruments of oppression,” after a swift outcry from members of the Canadian Muslim community.

The opinion piece, written in response to a photo published in the journal depicting two girls reading together, one of whom is wearing a hijab, was criticized online by Muslim women in medicine.

The letter called the hijab a symbol of oppression and chided the journal for featuring it so prominently. Outraged members of the medical community called that a stereotypical and inaccurate view of what the hijab represents.

It’s an “attack on Muslim women,” Dr. Aliya Khan, a clinical professor of medicine at McMaster University told the Star. Khan said she found it “shocking” that CMAJ chose to publish the letter and give the author a platform to share views dehumanizing to Muslim women.

“To use (the CMAJ) platform to spew hatred and Islamophobia is totally horrendous and appalling,” Khan said.

The photo that sparked the letter should be seen as a showcase of inclusiveness and diversity, she added.

Dr. Sherif Emil, the Montreal-based pediatric surgeon who wrote the letter, did not respond to the Star’s request for comment in time for publication. In his piece, he did say he respects that women who choose to wear the hijab have the right to that choice.

CMAJ interim editor-in-chief Kirsten Patrick posted an apology for her “error in publishing the letter” to the journal’s website Thursday afternoon.

“I sincerely apologize for the considerable hurt that so many people, including medical colleagues and learners, have experienced from reading the letter. I take full responsibility for the inadequacy of editorial process that led to this error,” she wrote.

The CMAJ is also formally retracting the letter, Patrick wrote, and promised that editors will review the journal’s processes for considering, reviewing and publishing submitted letters.

“CMAJ will always respect and support the right of women to choose to dress as they wish,” she said.

Khan worries about the potential that her patients will remember the letter and believe her hijab represents extremism. Islamophobia, she said, is already widespread in Canada and plays out in medicine.

She recounted multiple incidents of patient abuse and harassment over her career. On one occasion, a physician wrote a performance evaluation following a lecture Khan gave and said she should “go back to Saudi Arabia,” a country to which Khan has no ties.

In response to the letter, OmiSoore Dryden, co-lead of Black Health Education Collaborative, suspended work on a collaboration with the CMAJ that was expected to produce a Black Health in Canada issue next spring.

Dryden told the Star her group had been working with CMAJ for over a year to remedy systemic anti-Black racism within the journal but the decision to publish this letter shows that “that they’ve not been paying attention to the conversations we’ve been having.”

The CMAJ has missed the “connection between Islamophobia and what we’re doing around anti-Black racism,” said the Dalhousie professor, pointing out that Black Muslims are among those impacted by this letter.

This comes at a time where an ongoing legal challenge of Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 has been gathering support from city councils nationwide. The secularism bill came into law in 2019 and bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work, which would have a disproportionate impact on people like hijab-, turban- and kippah-wearers.

Earlier this month, it was put into action, when a hijab-wearing elementary school teacher was denied a job and removed from the classroom.

For Khan, the conversation can’t end until the journal takes meaningful action to address the letter. She pointed to the resignation of those responsible for the piece’s inclusion in the CMAJ as a possible avenue which could help remedy the situation.

“This type of hate speech results in death,” Khan said. “We’ve seen it.”

Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon

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