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October 31, 2002: Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan. Photo by Dave ChanDAVE CHAN/Handout

In his 1997 groundbreaking essay The Rise of Illiberal Democracy , Fareed Zakaria reminds us that constitutional liberalism is a deeply rooted Western tradition that protects the individual from coercive powers of the state, church or society. It marries individual liberty with the rule of law, and secures individual rights through limits on government powers, separation of church and state, equality before the law, and impartiality of the judiciary.

"For much of modern history," he wrote, "what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy, but constitutional liberalism. The 'Western model' is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge."

Inherent in this model are safeguards against the "tyranny of the majority," so inalienable rights of a minority are protected against the whims of the majority. As John Stuart Mill argued, a social body has no right to coerce or restrict the individual unless the individual causes harm to others.

Given that constitutional liberalism is the bedrock of Canadian values, what are we to make of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's diktat concerning women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies?

Mr. Kenney is cynically exploiting public fear and ignorance to further stigmatize an easy target. False assumptions abound: Women are coerced to wear it; the niqab has nothing to do with Islam; the women must have something to hide; they must be brainwashed. Yet, talk to a few niqabis and you'll find the opposite. The majority, while decrying oppression and trumpeting "Canadian values," is prepared to deny a group of women their fundamental rights.

According to Mr. Kenney, the niqab hinders verification of the recitation of the citizenship oath. Why the focus on the niqab? Are the lips of all citizenship candidates scrutinized at these ceremonies? Why not simply allow an oath officer to hear the recitation, after proper identification?

Sex and the niqab: both forbidden during the hajj. As is fasting. Is Mr. Kenney qualified to make rulings on matters deemed complex by Islamic jurisprudence?

Not coincidentally, the minister chose to make his comments while the Supreme Court of Canada considers whether a woman should be allowed to testify in court with her face covered. Governments decline comment on cases before the court to give the appearance of judicial independence. Yet, a minister of the Crown says the niqab is "bizarre" and has no place in public testimony.

The Harper government has done a 180-degree turn on the niqab. In 2009, the Prime Minister's Office said: "In an open and democratic society like Canada, individuals are free to make their own decisions regarding their personal apparel and to adhere to their own customs or traditions of their faith or beliefs." On Monday, Mr. Kenney said: "We are all coming together as Canadians in a public ceremony and if you don't like it, if you feel uncomfortable, then maybe you chose the wrong country in the first place." He added: "I'm sure they'll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge." Imagine, a minister of the Crown publically denigrating those who seek their constitutional rights.

One may detest the niqab. But are we prepared to abide by the fundamental principle of defending opinions with which we disagree to safeguard the rights of individuals from coercion? Our past forays into exclusionary politics have resulted in shameful policies against minorities, not to mention the cultural genocide of the aboriginal population.

Inas Kadri had her niqab torn off by a woman in a Mississauga mall in the summer of 2010. The incident did not shake her faith in Canada. Rather, she re-evaluated her role as a citizen: "Living with people in this society, I think I should work harder to educate people about my religion." Fellow niqabi Sana Mutawi summed it up best: "We want our kids to be brought up in an understanding community, so they will be good citizens."

Hate the niqab all you want. But banning it is not a Canadian value.