Niqab controversy: Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau wade into culture war over the veil

Jason Kenney made his move just before Christmas of 2011. As Canada's minister of immigration at the time, he declared that, henceforth, women would not be allowed to cover their faces with a niqab — the Muslim veil — when taking the oath of citizenship.

"This is really a matter of pure principle, which is at the very heart of our identity and our values with respect to openness and equality," Kenney said then.

But, three years on, it doesn't seem so simple and the battle's still on. The Federal Court has struck down Kenney's ban on the niqab. The prime minister has called the ruling "offensive" and promises to appeal it.

Simultaneously, he's appealing to voters, with the polls showing him neck-and-neck with Justin Trudeau's Liberals as an election nears. What could possibly go wrong?

Get me some rhetoric, fast!

Of course, all the Western democracies are wrestling with the question of how to respond to militant Islam. All have seen accusations hurled of appeasement, Islamophobia, or naked prejudice. None has found a magic elixir and all have faced terrorist attacks. It seems that knowing what to do is hard and that pursuing the extremist minority, without alienating the law-abiding majority, is delicate work.

Even so, with an election looming, Canada's politicians are going at it with rhetorical sledgehammers.

The prime minister did his part in the House of Commons by indicting "a culture that is anti-women" for the practice of veiling. The need to ban the niqab, he told the House, is "very easy to understand."

"We don't allow people to … to cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies. And 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. Mr. Speaker, that is unacceptable to Canadians, unacceptable to Canadian women and that's why this government..."

Nobody heard the rest as Harper's Conservatives rose from their seats and drowned him out with applause.

'Hot-button race rhetoric'

With a new anti-terrorism bill — Bill C-51 — sailing through Parliament with a fair wind of popular support behind it, Conservatives are plainly calculating that the voters are with them on this topic, and the polls suggest they may be right. The opposition, though, smells fear-mongering, For the NDP, the always quotable Charlie Angus put it bluntly.

"If I was a Muslim Canadian, I would be very, very, very concerned about where our prime minister is going with this hot-button race rhetoric."

Muslims, of course, are not a race at all, so that's a stretch. But, when the rhetoric's flying, who's counting? Trudeau agreed that the prime minister had gone too far.

"I think this government is indeed doubling down on the politics of fear," said Trudeau.

What does Mackenzie King have to do with this?

But Trudeau himself has not been too picky about his rhetoric. The day before in Toronto, he made a wide-ranging speech accusing the government, among other sins, of stoking fear about Muslims — and compared Harper's hard line on the niqab to Canada's notorious wartime antipathy to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Mackenzie King government accepted far fewer refugees than its allies — an ugly policy, plainly rooted in anti-Semitism, which became known as "none is too many." Recalling the niqab ban, Trudeau linked the two.

"So we should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a "none is too many" immigration policy toward Jews in the '30s and '40s being used, today, to raise fears against Muslims today."

Kenney tweets again. And again

That led to an angry barrage of tweets from Kenney, the pugnacious minister of defence.

"Obscene to conflate the essentially public nature of the citizenship oath with an anti-Semitic bar on refugees fleeing the Holocaust," he tweeted.

But Kenney's no slouch in the heated-rhetoric department, either. Two days earlier, he had tweeted grim photos of chained, veiled Muslim women and girls, to illustrate his condemnation of "ISIL's campaign to enslave women."

He might have been a little fast on the BlackBerry there. The photos actually had nothing to do with ISIL, or ISIS. Instead, they were stock photos of some of ISIS's sworn enemies — depicting the annual Shia festival of Ashura, in which women re-enact a medieval legend about the revered Imam Hussein. It's a pantomime, akin to Christians re-enacting Christ's carrying of the cross up the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

Oops — wrong Muslims. Worse, Canada and the rest of the coalition are largely dependent on Shia militias to win the ground war against ISIS in Iraq. When it comes to ISIS, like it or not — and nobody does —​ Kenney's pictures actually showed de facto Canadian allies.

So Kenney, too, became a target. The National Council of Canadian Muslims called his tweet "another example of our elected leaders, at best, ignorantly conflating Islam and Muslims with extremism and terrorism, and at worst, deliberately attempting to score political points by stoking divisions among Canadians."

'Give these dinosaurs the boot!'

Of course, the opposition couldn't give Kenney a pass, either. The NDP's Jinny Sims scoffed at Kenney in the House, saying he had "misrepresented photos of Muslim women on Twitter."

"Canadians are not impressed," she added, "and they're ready to give these dinosaurs the boot!"

Well, maybe not. The polls still suggest, essentially, a dead heat between the Liberals and Conservatives with the NDP far behind. That means the rhetoric's hardly likely to cool down, Already, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney has invoked the Holocaust in his defence of the new counterterrorism bill.

Bill C-51 bans the "promotion" of terrorism, said Blaney, because, after all, "the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chamber; it began with words."

Now, it seems, all sides are throwing big words around. Culture. Race. Fear. The Holocaust. These are very deep waters — and the politicians are wading in.