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OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian opposition leader on Friday compared Prime Minister Stephen Harper's handling of Islam to Russian President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on gays, ratcheting up political rhetoric over the religion as Harper's ruling Conservatives seek re-election in October.
Harper said this week that the niqab, a face-covering veil worn by some Muslims, was "rooted in an anti-women culture" as he defended the government's desire to ban women from wearing a niqab during the oath of citizenship.
While Canadians and Harper himself typically celebrate multiculturalism, the sudden furor over wearing the niqab comes as Harper's Conservatives warn Canadians they are under threat from "jihadist terrorism," a threat best met by new tougher security legislation Harper will campaign on.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of the left-of-center opposition New Democratic Party, on Friday told Ottawa radio station CFRA that Harper was pandering to Islamophobia.
"It's not dissimilar to what we see with the president of Russia, who uses a minority there, the lesbian, gay, bisexual community ... and he goes after them with great relish because he knows that it's going to resonate with a part of the population," Mulcair said.
Harper spokesman Rob Nicol said Mulcair was fearmongering.
"The comparison to Putin is absurd. No Western leader has stood up to Putin's regime and called him out as strongly as Prime Minister Harper and our Conservative government," Nicol said.
The government, on heightened alert after two attacks last year on Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec by Canadian converts to Islam, in January introduced legislation that would allow Canada's spies to interrupt suspected terrorists' travel plans and communications.
But the political debate over the bill, broadly condemned by pundits as unnecessary but supported by skittish Canadians, has shifted from security to the place of Muslims in Canadian society, with the niqab as a Conservative vote-winning target.
Amira Elghawaby, human rights coordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said she was very concerned with how Islam was being discussed.
"It is extremely important to weigh our words carefully and to be sure that when we're talking about violent extremism and criminal behavior, that we do so without alienating, marginalizing and casting this pall of suspicion over the more than 1 million Canadian Muslims," she said.
The opposition Liberals and New Democrats, both to the left of Harper politically, said Canadian women do not need to consult the prime minister on their clothing choices.
Reporting by Randall Palmer