Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced off Wednesday over a growing debate about whether wearing a niqab is a choice and when it should be allowed.

Trudeau called on Harper to explain a remark one day earlier where he seemed to suggest Islam is "anti-women."

"The prime minister made more alarming statements yesterday on the rights and freedoms of Canadians. Can he please explain to Canada's half a million Muslim women why he said their chosen faith is anti-women?" Trudeau said in question period.

Harper shot back that it was Trudeau who owes Canadians an explanation, but uncharacteristically stumbled over his response.

"These are not the views only of the overwhelming majority of Canadians, they are the views of the overwhelming majority of Muslims, moderate Muslims," Harper said.

"It is up to the leader of the Liberal Party to explain why he is so far outside that mainstream view."

On Tuesday, Harper suggested during a response regarding niqabs, coverings that veil most of a woman's face, that Islam is anti-woman.

"Why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not open and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?" Harper asked in question period.

Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau face-off over niqabs3:16

Harper 'undignified'

The debate has picked up speed since the government said it would challenge a Federal Court decision that overturned a ban on face coverings in citizenship ceremonies. The court said the ban interfered with a judge's "duty to allow candidates for citizenship the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation of the oath."

But as politicians debate two proposed anti-terrorism bills and deal with the fallout from the Oct. 22 shooting at the National War Memorial and on Parliament Hill, rhetoric regarding Islam has been increasingly heated.

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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair chastised Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau Wednesday, accusing them of using inflammatory language in the debate over whether a woman has the right to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair chastised Harper and Trudeau Wednesday, accusing them of using inflammatory language in the debate over whether a woman has the right to wear a niqab at a citizenship ceremony.

"Mr. Harper specifically singles out mosques [in the debate]. That leads to Islamophobia and that's irresponsible," Mulcair said Wednesday on his way out of the NDP's weekly caucus meeting.

"When he talks about a culture of 1.8 billion human beings as being anti-woman... that's very divisive and it's irresponsible, and it's undignified from a Canadian prime minister."

Both opposition parties have criticized the government for stoking fear of Muslims for political reasons. They say the Conservatives aren't distinguishing between the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who disavow terrorism, and Islamic extremists.

In the past few weeks, the Conservatives have sent out fundraising emails on the issue of face veils that mixed up the hijab, which generally covers only a woman's hair, and the niqab, and used an image by terror-group al-Shabaab to try to collect email addresses from supporters.

Most recently, a mailout by Conservative MP Lawrence Toet asked recipients to return a survey after choosing whether they a) agree with him that more protection is needed or b) believe "terrorists are victims too."​

Politicizing

In a speech Monday, Trudeau accused the Conservatives of blurring the lines between security threats and prejudice. He compared the government's use of rhetoric to raise fears against Muslims to that used to promote a "none is too many" restrictive immigration policy toward Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper went on the offensive against Justin Trudeau in question period Wednesday, saying the Liberal leader "owed Canadians an explanation" for attacking the government's position on the wearing of niqabs while making citizenship oaths. (Adiran Wyld/Canadian Press)

Mulcair also took aim at both Trudeau and the government.

"Using any reference to the Holocaust in relation to the situation in Canada is singularly inappropriate," he said.

"I think that there's been enough inflammatory language both by the Conservatives and by Mr. Trudeau on this."

'Conduct unbecoming' a PM

Treasury Board President Tony Clement defended his government's position on face veils.

"Look, I think the expression of citizenship is the key issue here. And the expression of citizenship should be open, should be transparent, and should be consistent with the values of being Canadian, including gender equity," Clement said.

"And the fact that Justin Trudeau is trying to expand this issue, is trying to politicize this issue, is trying to make political hay on the issue, tells you a lot more about his character than about the character of the prime minister of Canada."

Trudeau defended his speech, arguing it was up to political leaders to call out "conduct unbecoming of a Canadian prime minister."

Trudeau's speech was criticized by a prominent Jewish group for comparing Second World War-era policies with the current government's strategy. He said he respects their point of view. 

"But the fact is, Canada needs to learn from the very many regrettable incidents of our past, of which I brought up a number of examples, and push back against the intolerance, against the culture of fomenting fear and anxiety that unfortunately we're in right now," Trudeau said.

Canadians react to PM's niqab comments2:11

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct a reference to the Federal Court of Appeal. In fact, the government is appealing a Federal Court decision, not a Federal Court of Appeal decision.
    Mar 11, 2015 3:34 PM ET