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opinion

David Butt is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer.

A chubby three-year-old was playing on his well-manicured front lawn in a small Ontario town in the early 1960s. Two nuns, in traditional religious habits, came walking his way on the sidewalk, chatting amiably while their long black garments and headwear flapped energetically in the light breeze. The three-year-old, raised Protestant, found himself encountering nuns for the first time. With nothing more than a glance, he instantly judged them through the highly constricted lens of his limited experience, and ran terrified into his house, yelling, "Mummy! Mummy! The witches are coming!"

The little boy's wise and compassionate mother took his hand and gently led him right back out to the sidewalk, where she engaged in conversation with the nuns, during which she breezily introduced her son. In the course of his mother's short, pleasant exchange with two other friendly women, the little boy's fears vanished.

That little boy was me, and almost 50 years later, when a woman whom I can identify only as NS walked into my law practice wearing a niqab, memories of that encounter with the initially mysterious and terrifying nuns came flooding back. By then I was an areligious middle-aged white male. Some might call me "old stock" Canadian. How could I possibly relate to this totally unfamiliar woman with her face partially covered out of religious devotion? Channelling my mother on that small-town sidewalk so many decades before, I choked down my fear, and opted for pleasant conversation.

It worked, for both of us. I represented NS in an epic legal battle over her niqab. She alleged suffering sexual abuse as a child, and she just wanted to wear her niqab while undergoing the immense stress of the witness box in criminal court. The defence objected vigorously, and the prosecution, showing no moral courage at all, stayed neutral. She took her fight alone, all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where she was largely vindicated.

And I came to know and admire NS as a warm, feisty, resilient and deeply Canadian woman. Coming from very different backgrounds, but marching together as lawyer and client, we shared countless laughs, along with the inevitable multitude of sorrows and disappointments spawned by a bitter fight in which the legal establishment largely lined up against us.

While the precedent-setting niqab case, "The Queen versus NS," is now one for the history books, the enduring lesson of the case is neither legal nor historical. The enduring lesson is that very early in the lawyer-client relationship I enjoyed with NS the person, her niqab metaphorically disappeared. It became no barrier at all once we both made what was really a very simple effort to connect through conversation, a basic yet powerful form of human outreach and warmth. It is astounding, and uplifting, how frequently and how rapidly the prejudices we form at a distance can be eradicated with as little as a dash of sincere social engagement: when we stop projecting our ignorant stereotypes onto others, and start actively listening to who those others really are. I learned that powerful lesson as a three-year-old holding my mother's hand while she chatted with a couple of nuns in full regalia, and I relearned it when I lucked into the privilege of representing NS.

That is why the current abuse of identity politics around the niqab is so deeply troubling. Those who practice this demeaning form of electioneering reveal themselves as no more advanced in their thinking than the three-year-old who let fear, ignorance and pejorative stereotypes drive his judgment of people based solely on their religiously motivated wardrobe choices.

How many people spewing thinly disguised anti-Muslim rhetoric about banning the niqab can honestly say they have taken the time to foster real human connection with women who choose to wear one? Even so much as a simple conversation? And if they have not done so, why is what they say about the wearing of the niqab worthy of even the slightest serious consideration? Why do we tolerate dehumanizing pronouncements by people speaking from a stance of ignorance about, and disengagement from, the folks they dehumanize? If we have learned anything from the many racist stains on our collective historical tapestry, surely it is that ignorance and disengagement are powerful catalysts for the emergence of hate. So it is distressing indeed that hate's well-known catalysts should be the stuff of contemporary electoral politics.