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Niqab debate is 'disgusting', 'ridiculous' say some Hamilton Muslims

It was a room concerned with the politics of division on Tuesday night when Hamilton Muslims packed into a meet-and-greet for local federal election candidates.

Niqabs and Bill C-51 headlined an all-candidates federal election meet-and-greet

"You should be able to dress according to your beliefs, so that’s very important to us," Sema Hassan said at a Muslim Association of Hamilton all-candidates event on Tuesday. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was a room concerned with the politics of division on Tuesday night when Hamilton Muslims packed into a meet-and-greet for local federal election candidates.

Candidates from the Conservative, NDP, Liberal and Green parties talked about themselves, and the economy, and their party platforms.

But heavily on the mind of the room was how the niqab has become a divisive election issue, with the Conservative government vowing to fight a Federal Court of Appeal ruling saying that women shouldn't have to remove their niqabs during citizenship ceremonies.

"They’re trying to put a lot of focus on Muslim women with the niqab debate," says Tahirah Seta, 18. "Personally, I don’t even see that many women wearing the niqab." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The event also came during a week where Conservative leader Stephen Harper said he'd consider a niqab ban for public servants. The Conservatives have also promised to set up a tip line to report neighbours engaged in "barbaric practices."

These issues leave some Muslim voters feeling targeted, said Raza Khan, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Hamilton. For the past decade, he said, they've seen issues such as Bill C-51, a controversial anti-terrorism bill, and have felt increasingly discriminated.

"Muslims in general are finding it disgusting that Muslims are being used as a vote-getting tool to try to divide Canadians," Khan said. "It's not Canadian to do that. We're very inclusive and tolerant and welcoming. It's not a good precedent."

Muslims in the audience were mixed on whether they felt like the subject of unfair attention this election. But they all found the niqab debate to be absurd, particularly since women who wear it will have to show their faces when gaining citizenship. Only the ceremony is in question.

"They're putting a lot of focus on Muslim women with the niqab debate," said Tahirah Seta, an 18-year-old McMaster University student voting for the first time. "Personally, I don't even see that many women wearing the niqab. I find it a little bit ridiculous."

Syed Usman Jafer, 15, has been following the election for school and for his own interest. He says he feels an increased amount of scrutiny against Muslims, but can't pinpoint why. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Sema Hassan, 25, also felt the issue shouldn't be getting this level of scrutiny.

"Anything to do with our religion shouldn't be seen as a threat regarding the niqab or hijab in general," she said. "You should be able to dress according to your beliefs, so that's very important to us."

David Sweet, Conservative incumbent running in the new riding of Flamborough-Glanbrook, addressed the concerns in his five-minute speech. He said afterward that Bill C-51 doesn't target Muslims. In fact, his party introduced the ambassador for religious freedoms.

"Bill C-51 is to target people who harm Canadians. That's clearly what the intention was and that's how it's laid out," he said in an interview afterward.

He denied that the Conservatives are running a campaign of wedge politics. As for the niqab, "the issue is not one of religion but of showing your face when taking the oath of citizenship."

On the issue of a tip line, he cited honour killings as an example of when it might be used. "If someone mentions that they are killing someone for honour then I consider that a barbaric practice."

But Khan said Muslims have the subject of increased attention in recent years, and "we're feeling it."

"We are energized and we are going to be out in full force on Oct. 19," he said.

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