I loathe the niqab. I agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper that niqabs are "not how we do things here." A cloth that covers the face is a symbolic rebuke to Western values – especially when the covered woman is walking three steps behind her jeans-and-sneakers-clad husband.
But I also think a woman has the right to choose – even when her choice is offensive to a lot of people. I believe that religious freedom is a cornerstone of Western values. People should have wide latitude to exercise that freedom as they wish, and we shouldn't constrain them without very good reasons.
So if Zunera Ishaq, a devout Sunni Muslim from Pakistan, wants to wear a veil while she swears the oath of citizenship, let her. Our democracy has survived greater threats than that.
Mr. Harper does not agree. He's pretty sure that most Canadians don't agree either. According to internal polls, eight in 10 Canadians support the Conservative position that women should not be allowed to cover while they take the citizenship oath. And so he's going to challenge Ms. Ishaq in court and milk this contentious little scrap of cloth for all it's worth.
Never mind the Constitution and all that. This is about politics, not principles. In the public mind, the war on the niqab is a proxy for the war on radical Islam. And waging war on radical Islam has been a solid winner.
The surge of the Islamic State, along with the terrorist attacks in Canada and in Europe, have been manna from heaven for Mr. Harper's re-election hopes. Who cares about Mike Duffy when murderous fanatics are mowing down cartoonists and Jews in the name of Islam? Who cares about the democratic deficit when deranged crazies are storming Parliament? Who cares that the economy is flatlining when the Caliphate is sawing people's heads off in the desert?
The pundits and the media may snipe, but the public is overwhelmingly behind Mr. Harper on this one. So what if the war on IS has cost us more than $120-million (peanuts, by any measure)? The public doesn't care. A whopping 76 per cent of Canadians approve of our involvement in fighting IS in Iraq. So what if the new anti-terror legislation is, according to the experts, somewhere between loosely drafted and deeply flawed? Not the public, who've embraced Bill C-51 with the rapture usually reserved for the ice cream and cake at a four-year-old's birthday party. More than four in five of us – 82 per cent – approve of the legislation, according to a new Angus Reid poll. In fact, 36 per cent of those polled don't think it goes far enough. Lots of folks would be happy to give up a bit of our civil liberties in exchange for a better shot at intercepting the bad guys.
All of this leaves Justin Trudeau sucking air. His convictions align nicely with those of the media class, but they are badly out of sync with most Canadians. His efforts to square his principles with mass opinion add up to incoherence. He opposes our (limited) role in the war on the Islamic State, but the alternatives he suggests just seem silly. He opposes the government's plan to appeal Ms. Ishaq's right to veil in citizenship court. (Good for him.) He says the anti-terror bill is deeply flawed, but that the Liberals will vote for it anyway. Huh?
That leaves Thomas Mulcair lots of room to do his job, which he is doing as ably as he can as the Conservatives try to quash the debate as quickly as they can. As usual, Mr. Trudeau is stuck in the middle, looking insecure and wishy-washy.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, things are getting a bit ugly. Last week, city councillors in Shawinigan – a place where veiled women are admittedly thin on the ground – refused to rezone land for a mosque after being deluged with angry calls and e-mails. The mayor himself said the city had caved in to "irrational fears." This week, François Legault, head of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the province's third-most popular party, declared that new mosques should be investigated before they open to make sure the applicants agree with Quebec values.
This might be a good time for a Prime Minister to weigh in and remind people that our war is against radical Islam, not against ordinary Muslims who just want to worship like anybody else. Fat chance of that happening. Nowhere is niqab politics playing better than in Quebec, which is normally allergic to foreign interventions. Instead, Canada's mission in Iraq against the Islamic State is supported by an amazing 66 per cent of Quebeckers. Even more support the terrorism bill.
Just a few short months ago, the Conservatives were about as popular in Quebec as a skunk at a picnic. Now they are surging in the polls – thanks to Mr. Harper's tough line on radical Islam and all the dangerous women in veils who are running amok on our streets and in the courts.
I despise niqabs. I really, really do. But I despise attacks on people's freedom even more. There's a difference between a woman in a veil and a jihadi sawing off a head. We need to remember that.