The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a Muslim veil is dominating Canada’s election race

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, exchanges words with New Democrat Party leader Tom Mulcair in Montreal in September. Canada's tight three-way race may be turning into a two-party contest. (Adrian Wyld/Reuters)

Canada will hold its federal election in less than two weeks. For months, the contest has been viewed as a three-horse race between the ruling Conservative party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Liberals and the leftist New Democrat Party. There are lots of important issues at stake, including Canada's flagging economy, its role in counterterrorism operations overseas, and the looming specter of climate change.

But, of late, something far more insignificant has begun to dominate the conversation: whether Muslim women can wear the niqab, a type of full-face veil, during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

The prompt for the hubbub is a specific case: In mid-September, a federal court rejected an appeal by Harper's government that attempted to block Zunera Ishaq, a 29-year-old devout Muslim of Pakistani origin, from attending her citizenship ceremony without removing her niqab. The appeal followed an earlier ruling that deemed "unlawful" a 2011 decision by Harper's government to prevent face veils at oath-taking ceremonies.

But Harper and his allies aren't letting go. They intend to fight the latest ruling and have made the matter of the niqab a sticking point in the campaign. The garb, they argue, is a symbol of oppression.

"When you join the Canadian family in a public citizenship ceremony, it is essential that that is a time when you reveal yourselves to Canadians," Harper said. Another Conservative candidate said last week that the niqab is "not in line with Canadian values."

This is a proposition that appears to have widespread support from Canadians. A poll ordered by Harper's government showed that a huge majority of Canadians are in agreement with the niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies. It's a sentiment that is particularly strong in Quebec, a majority French-speaking province that has for years waged its own battles over the role afforded to religion — and especially Islam — in its public life.

And, according to polls, the flaring of the niqab debate appears to have coincided with a dip in Quebecois support for the NDP, whose leader Thomas Mulcair recently accused Harper of using the niqab as "a weapon of mass distraction."

Anti-NDP ads, such as this one below from the Quebec sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, paint the niqab as a kind of dangerous cultural poison introduced into the body politic. The video's title translates to "a drop too much."

The current heated debate has had real effects. Last week, a pregnant woman in Montreal was knocked to the street by teenagers who attacked her for wearing a hijab.

"We’ve seen a pretty striking rise in racial intolerance in Canada, which mirrors what’s going on in Europe and America as well," Frank Graves, a Canadian pollster, recently told the Guardian. "Canadians have become a little more fearful, a little more closed, a little less enthusiastic about globalization."

"This is dog-whistle politics 101," Graves says. "And you know what? It’s working." A recent Globe and Mail poll found Conservatives gaining and the NDP slipping in recent weeks. The Conservatives also proposed a new initiative last week to set up a telephone hotline where ordinary Canadians could report on "barbaric cultural practices" carried out by their neighbors.

Critics of the Harper government say it's engaging in a dangerous, xenophobic game by grandstanding on an issue that involves a tiny minority of devout Muslim women in the country.

"I believe that if a man cannot impose his will on how a woman dresses, we should not have a state that imposes how a woman shouldn't dress," argued Liberal leader Justin Trudeau last month.

Since Harper's 2011 ban, only two women have declined the ceremony because of their unwillingness to remove the niqab. Ishaq had already offered to remove her niqab while taking the oath in a room with women only, or repeat the oath with a microphone on beneath her veil so all could hear her.

"No one else’s life is made the poorer because, somewhere in Canada, a women is swearing allegiance to this country with her face covered," writes Canadian columnist Andrew Coyne, who happens to be a noted proponent of Canada playing a more muscular role in conflicts in the Middle East. "If the federal Conservatives hadn’t made an issue of it, none of those now raising blue hell at this insult to their tender sensibilities would even have been aware of it."

Despite the divisiveness of the present, Canada is an impressively, resolutely multicultural country, with a historically progressive approach to immigration. In Calgary, it boasts the only major city in North America to elect (and later reelect) a Muslim mayor. Naheed Nenshi, the mayor, earlier branded the current feuding over the niqab as "disgusting."

"I don't much like the niqab and I wish people wouldn't wear it," Nenshi told CBC over the weekend. "But what I like even less is telling people what to do."

Ishaq — the woman at the center of the storm — is confused about all the attention and controversy. "This is not an issue, by the way," she told the Guardian. "This is a trivial thing."

More on WorldViews

Where Islamic veils are banned and where they're mandatory

Europe's fears of Muslim refugees echoes 1930s anti-Semitism