LONDON (Reuters) – Former foreign secretary Jack Straw said Muslim women who wore full veils made community relations “more difficult”, sparking criticism from Islamic groups who said the comments would cause anger in their communities.
Straw, now Leader of the House of Commons, said a veil was “a visible statement of separation and difference” and that he felt much more comfortable dealing with people with their faces uncovered.
Writing in his local paper, Straw said he was concerned that “wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”.
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Straw said he had received a unanimously positive response to his request for Muslim women to take off their veils when they came to see him in Blackburn, the town he represents in parliament.
“Most seem relieved I have asked,” he said in his article for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.
Straw, who made it clear he defended the rights of Muslims to wear headscarves and that wearing a full veil “breaks no laws”, acknowledged that his concerns could be “misplaced”.
“I thought a lot before raising this matter a year ago, and still more before writing this. But if not me, who?” he wrote.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government is striving to improve integration among ethnic and religious groups after the deadly suicide bomb attacks by four British Muslims on London’s transport network.
On Wednesday, Conservative opposition leader David Cameron said many communities were growing up living “parallel lives” and that only contact could overcome differences.
However, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) accused both political parties of pandering to anti-Muslim elements.
“Both the Labour and the Conservative politicians are trying to compete with each other. One wonders whether they are trying to appeal to the right-wing media,” a MAB spokesman said, adding he believed Straw’s comments about the veils were unwarranted.
Abdul Hamid Qureshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, warned that Straw would get criticisms “from all quarters”.
“What is he really concerned about? This is not helpful, it has got the potential to cause anger,” he told the Lancashire Telegraph.