Skip to main content

Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.

Meet Zunera Ishaq. I'm sure you've heard about her already though you may not place the name.

Zunera Ishaq hails from Pakistan where she was a high school teacher, lives in Mississauga, Ont., is 29 and has 3 kids. She came to Canada in 2008, passed her citizenship test five years later with flying colours, and is now ready to take the oath of citizenship. She's been "imagining [this moment] for so long" because she's anxious to be a full and active member of Canadian society. She and her husband chose Canada over other countries, she says, because "It is especially important to me to live in a country of religious freedoms since I am a devout Muslim."

She's already a volunteer at her eldest child's school – a public school – and at a local women's shelter, and once she becomes a citizen she is determined to have an active say in her country's future. Her lawyers, Lorne Waldman and Naseem Mithoowani, have been impressed by her feistiness, independence and determination. Zunera Ishaq would be, from all accounts, a model Canadian.

Yet if it were up to the Prime Minister of Canada, Ms. Ishaq would have to settle for "imagining" her citizenship until hell freezes over. Why? Because she wears a niqab, which covers her entire face except her eyes. Ms. Ishaq says in a court affidavit that "I first started wearing the niqab when I was approximately 15 years old….After I had done research….I came to the conclusion that the niqab is mandatory to my faith." While many Muslims disagree, each is free to make these decisions for herself.

It's perfectly legal, harms no one, but is providing ammunition for Stephen Harper's election campaign.

The story begins in 2011, when then-immigration minister Jason Kenney arbitrarily decreed that faces couldn't be covered at citizenship oath-taking ceremonies. This was a direct blow to Ms. Ishaq. She is prepared to unveil herself in private to an official before taking the oath, but will not appear unveiled at the public ceremony. She approached the University of Toronto's legal aid clinic who put her in touch with Lorne Waldman, one of Canada's top-notch immigration lawyers. Mr. Waldman went to court to challenge the government and won. In his words, "The Court found that the policy of requiring a woman to remove her facial covering, where there is no question of identity or security, was illegal. The government is required to follow the law."

Well, not so fast. Never mind the law. We're talking about politics here. The government has decided to appeal the ruling against them, as just one of their battery of pre-election attacks against Muslims here and abroad. For what I believe are crassly political motives, they are deliberately inflaming Canadians against each others. Now we know what Conservatives mean by "Canadian values."

Ms. Ishaq has been personally singled out for the national spotlight by no less than Stephen Harper himself. In fact the entire government of Canada seems obsessed by this one woman, while the Conservative Party of Canada actually rushed out a fund-raising appeal based on Ms. Ishaq's apparently mortal threat to the Canadian Way of Life.

Quite simply, the Conservatives have decided that she is a useful weapon in their re-election campaign. By scapegoating her while introducing their much-criticized new anti-terrorism bill, they hope to convince frightened voters that the Conservatives are their best hope against dangers of all kinds. But in doing so, they are instead actually jeopardizing the country's security. Stephen Harper and his minions are actually subverting the work of our security forces by alienating much of the Muslim community.

CSIS and the Mounties badly need the co-operation of the Muslim community to provide information about security risks among them. Yet even moderate Muslims – the large majority – are outraged by the way the government has, among other things, been picking on this one harmless Muslim woman, and in the process mocking the right of all Muslims to follow their religion in the way they want. Out of sheer political opportunism, Stephen Harper is undermining that community's trust in official Canada while very likely estranging and radicalizing some Muslims, perhaps dangerously. How can he possibly not understand this?

Other Canadians are also guilty of this reckless behaviour, further angering all Muslims and in particular alienating younger ones. Far too many of these provocateurs are from Quebec, people with responsible positions as political, community and judicial leaders. They are not merely bigoted and intolerant. They are also divisive and destructive. They are playing into the hands of ISIS. As they surely must understand, they are sending an unmistakable message to every Muslim in the land: You are not one of us and we don't trust any of you. And that message is being heard loud and clear by Muslims everywhere, with predictable repercussions.

Is it really too much to expect the Prime Minister of Canada to act responsibly at a time like this? It seems it is. Politics trumps all, even if it means turning other Canadians against Muslims and turning Muslims against official Canada. The consequences of both remain to be seen.

Interact with The Globe