Harper: Niqabs 'Rooted In A Culture That Is Anti-Women'

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OTTAWA - Stephen Harper doubled down Tuesday on his aversion to face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, calling them the product of a culture that is "anti-women."

The prime minister ratcheted up the rhetoric against the niqab even as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused him and his ministers of stoking prejudice against Muslims.

Among other things, Trudeau pointed to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander calling the hijab — a head scarf worn by some Muslim women — a perversion of Canadian values, and New Brunswick MP John Williamson, a former Harper communications director, referring last weekend to "whities" and "brown people."

Harper ignored those examples and returned instead to his assertion last month that it's "offensive" for someone to wear a face-covering niqab while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship.

"The leader of the Liberal party continues to bring up his position on the niqab," Harper told the House of Commons, although Trudeau had not actually mentioned it.

He said Trudeau doesn't seem to understand "why almost all Canadians oppose the wearing of face coverings during citizenship ceremonies."

"It's very easy to understand," Harper added. "Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and, frankly, is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?"

Harper's response shows the Conservatives are "indeed doubling down on the politics of fear," Trudeau said later.

Repeatedly talking about niqabs and hijabs as though they were the same thing shows the government "is willing to confuse and conflate the issues in ways that encourages ignorance ... and quite frankly stokes fears and anxieties at a time where people are worried about terrorism and extremism," he added.

"This is the crassest kind of politics."

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus accused Harper of characterizing "an entire religion" as anti-women.

"If I was a Muslim Canadian, I would be very, very, very concerned about where our prime minister's going with this kind of hot-button, race rhetoric," Angus said.

But Trudeau faced his own accusations of fear-mongering after giving a speech Monday evening in which he warned that the Harper government is employing the same kind of rhetoric that led to some of Canada's most shameful displays of racism in the past, including the "none is too many" policy towards Jewish immigration in the 1930s and 40s.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs took issue with the comparison to former restrictions on Jewish immigration, which centre CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel noted was the product of "extensive social and institutional discrimination" faced by Jews at that time.

Jewish Canadians then faced quotas for university admission, were barred from social clubs, corporations and even some public parks, Fogel said, arguing that the bigotry Muslims and other minorities face today simply can't compare.

In his speech Monday, Trudeau said Canadians, presumably including Harper, are free to believe the niqab is "a symbol of oppression." But using the state's power to compel Muslim women to give it up indulges "the very same repressive impulse."

"It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear."

Harper has vowed to appeal a court ruling which struck down the ban on wearing a face-covering veil during the citizenship ceremony.

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