COVID-19, face masks and national security

The debate over the niqab (Muslim face veil) was never about national security: COVID-19 is demonstrating that.

OTTAWA, CANADA — My, my, what a difference five years makes! Back in 2015 the Harper government pledged to set up a police hotline to report what it called “barbaric cultural practices”, following a string of opinion polls showing that the party’s hard line against Muslim headwear was helping it in the polls. This was all tied up with the so-called ‘Canadian values’ debate, an idea that some ideas were more ‘Canadian’ then others.

The Conservatives went on to lose the election to the Trudeau Liberals, who subsequently put through a motion, passed in the Senate, to remove mention of ‘barbaric cultural practices’ from the Harper-era law, but not before a spike in hate crimes against Muslims (people attempting to rip hijabs – not niqabs – off women’s heads).

The notion that full face covering, ranging from niqabs where the eyes show to burqas where even one’s peepers are behind a mesh screen, was ‘barbaric’ and furthermore posed a national security threat was dismissed by those of us in the intelligence world even back then. We had enough on our plates without having to worry about women who elected to don this mode of outerwear. As an aside, I am not a fan of the niqab (or the burqa) but not for security reasons: I believe that it is a misogynous practice and one that is often imposed on women, not a free choice.

We need to stand up for our values. We need to do that in citizenship ceremonies. We need to do that to protect women and girls from forced marriage and other barbaric practices.

Conservative Immigration Minister Chris Alexander

So when we walk the streets of Canada today what do we see? Lots of people sporting face masks. Are we being invaded by niqab-wearing terrorists? Are the barbarians at the gates? No, we are reacting to COVID-19 and the medically-sound advice that wearing a face mask helps both to stop the spread of the virus to others and to prevent one catching it from an infected person.

When we walk the streets of Canada today what do we see? Lots of people sporting face masks. Are we being invaded by niqab-wearing terrorists?

Where is the ban on face masks?

Where, then, is the hue and cry over this ‘threat to national security’ and act of barbarism? Are the Conservatives calling for a ban on face masks? Is there a spike in hate crime wherein gangs are roving the streets tearing off these adornments? If either is happening it is not crossing my radar.

Canada is not alone in this regard. France has a law regulating Islamic face coverings in public spaces on the grounds that concealing one’s face violates fundamental values of the republic, but even President Macron appeared at a school recently wearing a navy mask embellished with the blue, white and red stripes of the French flag (a vote for liberte, fraternite and egalite?). Am I the only one who detects hypocrisy?

RELATED – WHERE IS THE COVID-19 TERRORISM SPIKE?

Simply put, the original Conservative law had nothing to do with national security or public safety. Women in niqabs did not constitute a novel threat to our collective well being. There were legitimate questions around ‘fitting in’ and whether Canada is ‘comfortable’ with this type of clothing but these questions do not include safety ones.

The debate was better framed as one over Islam in Canada and whether certain parties (political and otherwise) liked what they saw. Turning it into a security issue was disingenuous at best. Perhaps proponents had watched too many old Westerns where the bad guys always hid their faces before they went in and robbed banks.

The debate over the niqab was never about national security: COVID-19 is demonstrating that.

A poor understanding of actual threats

If we want to have a legitimate discussion on national security and public safety it is vital that we are consistent in our analysis. If we decide that the obscuring of one’s face does indeed put us at risk then all instances of such do. Not just ones where the ‘obscurer’ is a Muslim female.

None of this detracts from the very real threat posed to Canada by Islamist terrorism, a field I worked in for 15 years at CSIS (in addition to five books on the subject). We have faced plots designed by a very small number of self-styled Canadian ‘jihadis’, both foiled and successful, over the past two decades and we will most likely see more (in addition to terrorist acts by other actors such as far right extremists). In my experience, however, none were the work of women in niqabs.

Canadians have a poor understanding of actual threats out there, despite occasional warnings by CSIS and the RCMP. Bias aside, I do believe that these agencies are the best placed to apprise us of what goes bump in the night and I do encourage them to communicate more often with Canadians. I predict we will never see a threat assessment in which the dangers of the niqab are presented as something Canadians need to fear. There are enough real threats we need to ‘face’.

Phil Gurski

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