Al-Qaida's No 2 has slammed France's push to ban the Islamic full-face veil and urged Muslim women in a new audio message that surfaced on the Internet on Wednesday to be "holy warriors" in the defense of their headdress against the "secular Western crusade".
In a 47-minute recording released on militant websites, Ayman al-Zawahri said the drive by France and other European nations to ban the veil amounted to discrimination against Muslim women.
"Every single woman who defends its veil is a holy warrior... in the face of the secular Western crusade," he said.
"France, with all its power and clout, can't touch the head-cover of a nun, but it can assault any face-veiled women".
He urged Muslims in Europe to support their women in resisting the western ban on the veil.
"We must call upon our girls, our sisters and our mothers to put on the veil. We must support them and defend them," he said.
France, Belgium and Spain are debating legislation that would ban the veil. Other nations in Europe too have struggled to balance national identities with growing Muslim populations with cultural practices that clash with their own.
Al-Qaida's deputy leader also eulogised the group network's reputed No 3 official, Mustafa al-Yazid, who was killed with his family in a US strike in Pakistan in May.
Al-Yazid's killing was among the hardest blows to al-Qaida since the US campaign against the terror network began.
He was the group's prime conduit to Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the day-to-day running of the group, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning, as US officials said after his death.
Al-Zawahri praised al-Yazid's sacrifice and went on to claim that although killed al-Qaida militants in Iraq outnumber US soldiers 100-to-1, the US will still withdraw from Iraq in defeat.
"The Americans are leaving and the Mujahedden ... are the ones staying," he said.
In his audiotape, al-Zawahri also talked about a wide range of topics in the Middle East such as democratic reforms in his native Egypt. He said that holy war is the only way to achieve reforms, not elections.