02/27/2015 04:34 EST | Updated 04/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Muslim Groups Urge Politicians To Uphold Canada's Constitutional Values

Critics say the Tories are fostering a combative attitude towards Islam that's reflected in legislation, party fundraising and public remarks.

OTTAWA - A Quebec judge's refusal to hear testimony from a woman in a hijab has become the latest flash point in an increasingly tense relationship between Canadian Muslims and their governments.

Critics are accusing the Conservative government of fostering a combative attitude towards Islam that's reflected in legislation, party fundraising and public remarks by senior Tories, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But while none went so far as to suggest the Quebec judge's decision was a direct reflection of that attitude, it's natural to want to draw a connection, one Muslim organization said Friday.

"The recent debate around citizenship oaths has unnecessarily muddied the waters and this latest incident in Quebec further reinforces this," Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said in a statement.

"Our elected leaders at all levels of government must uphold Canada's constitutional values and work to bring Canadians together rather than play politics."

Harper recently described as "offensive" the notion that a person would cover their face with a niqab while swearing the oath of citizenship.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander went further in a subsequent email to Conservative supporters, urging them to sign an online petition in support of Harper's remarks; he suggested Muslim women should not be allowed to take the oath while wearing a hijab, which covers the head but not the face.

On Friday, a spokesman for the prime minister said the hijab ought to be allowed in the Quebec case.

"If someone is not covering their face, we believe they should be allowed to testify," Stephen Lecce said in an email.

One Saskatchewan Conservative went further.

"Wow, a headscarf is enough to get you kicked out of a Quebec courtroom?" MP David Anderson wrote on Twitter. "What's happening to religious freedoms?"

Both the New Democrats and Liberals agreed.

"I think the judge in this case made a mistake and I expect this individual to be given a full and proper hearing in short order," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in Toronto.

Protecting minority rights is a cornerstone of Canada's democracy, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Friday in condemning the Quebec court's decision.

"The fact that in this situation — in a courtroom of all places — someone's fundamental rights weren't respected is absolutely unacceptable, and we expect that there will be consequences," he said.

But the prime minister isn't helping matters, he added.

When the government introduced its new marquee anti-terror bill last month, Harper drew a direct link between certain acts of violence and Canadian mosques, among other places.

"When we have a prime minister who leaps on occasions to divide and sow fear and raise concerns and unfounded fears about that community, it becomes much harder to send a message of inclusion," Trudeau said.

What happened in Quebec is more a reflection of certain attitudes in that particular province, said Jack Jedwab, the executive vice-president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

Recent polls in Quebec suggest a majority wouldn't want a mosque built in their neighbourhood; the so-called charter of Quebec values, which would have banned public servants from wearing any obvious religious symbols, was a central element of the province's last election campaign.

Still, national polls done by Jedwab's organization over the last few years have suggested a growing number of Canadians believe there is an irreconcilable conflict between Muslims and the West.

The most recent survey, done earlier this month, put that number at 58 per cent.

Privately, Conservatives say those numbers are why they believe there is public support for their stance on the niqab and their approach to the issue being a question of Canadian values.

But it's a troubling road to go down, Jedwab said.

"I wouldn't make a generalization that the Conservatives are creating this climate. I think this climate is created by a variety of different things," he said.

"But I am concerned about the idea that values risk trumping rights and discourse that suggests that values should trump rights is something I'd be concerned about and something we need to have a more meaningful national conversation around, I think."

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