03/11/2015 02:19 EDT | Updated 05/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Tony Clement Defends Niqab Ban At Citizenship Ceremonies, But Not Federal Workplaces

OTTAWA - Federal Conservatives scrambled Wednesday to clarify that their aversion to Muslim women wearing the niqab applies strictly to citizenship ceremonies.

But they struggled to explain why wearing the face-covering veil is no big deal in other spheres of life, including the federal public service, if — as Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintains — it's contrary to Canadian values and "rooted in a culture that is anti-women."

"That is what the prime minister said and that is a point of view that one can hold," said Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is responsible for federal civil service.

"That doesn't mean that you can impose that view in the workplace or in the private sphere. The one place where I think we have a right and an obligation to stress Canadian values is in the act of obtaining one's citizenship."

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who described herself as a "strong feminist," candidly admitted she's given no thought to the issue of wearing niqabs in venues other than citizenship ceremonies.

Others, including International Development Minister Christian Paradis, cast the issue strictly as a matter of requiring would-be citizens to identify themselves when taking the oath.

"We need to know who they are," said Tory MP Costa Menegakis, parliamentary secretary to the citizenship and immigration minister.

"Apart from that ... they should be able to wear (niqabs) absolutely, absolutely everywhere."

The scramble to clarify came amid a social media backlash to Harper's comments and escalating opposition charges that the Conservatives are deliberately stoking prejudice against Muslim Canadians in their bid to ramp up fear about radical Islamist terrorism.

Clement argued that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who gave a major speech Monday denouncing what he dubbed Harper's "politics of fear," is the one expanding the issue beyond just niqabs at citizenship ceremonies.

But Conservative party talking points issued Wednesday suggest the issue is tied to the party's broader goal of making terrorism an key issue in the coming election. After offering several lines about Trudeau being out of step with public support for banning the niqab during citizenship ceremonies, the final point says: "Unlike Justin Trudeau, we are not afraid to call the growing threat of jihadi terrorism exactly that — jihadi terrorism."

In the House of Commons, Trudeau demanded that Harper explain "to Canada's half a million Muslim women why he said their chosen faith is anti-women."

"Of course, I said no such thing," Harper countered.

He went on to read comments from two Muslim organizations supporting his contention that it's offensive to cover one's face while taking the citizenship oath.

"These are not the views only of the overwhelming majority of Canadians, they are the views of the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims," Harper asserted.

"It is up to the leader of the Liberal party to explain why he is so far outside that mainframe."

Trudeau shot back that Harper evidently believes "that the majority should dictate the religious rights of minorities" — just as he did as a Reform MP 25 years ago when he opposed allowing Sikh RCMP officers to wear turbans.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused Harper of employing "very divisive language and singling out a community." Among other things, he noted that Harper has singled out mosques as breeding grounds for radicalization.

"That leads to Islamophobia and that's irresponsible."

But Mulcair also criticized Trudeau for suggesting Harper's rhetoric about Muslims is similar to the "none is too many" rhetoric employed to keep Jewish refugees out of Canada in the 1930s and 1940s.

Two prominent Jewish groups have also said the comparison went too far.

Trudeau repeated his assertion Wednesday that Canada needs to learn from shameful racist episodes in the past and push back against fearmongering that stokes prejudice against any vulnerable minority.

While debate over the niqab raged on Parliament Hill, Harper was mocked on Twitter by people using the hashtag "DressCodePM" to seek his advice on their attire.

One tweeter asked whether her stiletto heels are "rooted in an anti-women culture" while another asked whether her black jeans and cardigan made her look "oppressed."

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