BBC News, October 6, 2006
Here’s a BBC video clip with representatives of UK Muslim advocacy groups raging at Jack Straw, concluding with a woman from MPACUK who says, “He shouldn’t be allowed to comment on these kind of issues, this is a Muslim issue.”
Jack Straw sparks a row by asking Muslim women who attend his constituency surgery to remove their veils. A Muslim policeman from the Diplomatic Protection Group is excused guarding the Israeli embassy in London during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are violent clashes between Asian and white youths at a Muslim dairy in Windsor. Just a few examples last week of what seem to be rising Muslim-related tensions.
The 1.6m Muslims in Britain represent the country’s biggest religious minority. A new study from the Office for National Statistics shows that most live in Greater London or in the industrial conurbations of the Midlands and the north of England. In some areas Muslims are close to being the majority. In the main they live with a complete absence of friction with other groups.
After the July 7 bombings last year, fears were expressed that there would be a backlash against Britain’s Muslims. In fact, while there was evidence of an increase in racially motivated attacks, most people accepted that the bombers and their sympathisers had to be isolated from the rest of the peaceful Muslim population.
There is, though, a sense of unease across Britain, driven by the perception that Muslims are getting special treatment. Would a white policeman have been listened to so sympathetically if he had asked for a change of duties? Is there a stench of political correctness about the way the authorities deal with these issues? Still, let’s keep a sense of proportion. Nobody today minds that Sikhs are allowed to ride motorbikes without switching their turbans for helmets — a hot issue in the 1970s.
Jack Straw, leader of the Commons, is an old political hand who has ambitions to succeed John Prescott as deputy prime minister. After John Reid, the home secretary, impressed at the Labour party conference, Mr Straw needed to make up ground and his remarks on the wearing of veils should be seen in that context. But he did have a perfect right to say them. His justified concern, along with others such as Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality, is of the development of parallel communities, separate from the mainstream.
The niqab, and even more the burqa, are demonstrations of visible separateness to some and, modern Muslims would argue, are sanctioned by alien custom rather than the Koran. Mr Straw’s intervention may have been politically motivated but there was a point to it. Few would suggest the veil should be banned. A tolerant society requires that everybody makes concessions to the cultural norms but it does not impose a dress code.
That said, the response of some Muslim groups — a few hotheads said Mr Straw’s remarks were “appalling” — was silly. If the veil contributes to a growing distance between Muslims and other groups, those more likely to suffer will be the Muslims themselves.