An unholy alliance of Muslims and far-Right extremists was last night threatening Jack Straw’s future as an MP as he was accused of playing the race card in a bid to salvage his career.
Protesters took to the streets of Mr Straw’s Blackburn constituency yesterday to vent their fury over his call for Muslim women to stop wearing veils.
One Muslim community leader, who helped him to get re-elected with a reduced majority of 8,009 last year, described the remarks by the Leader of the Commons as “like a family member going against us”.
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One in four voters in Blackburn, where Mr Straw has been MP since 1979, is a Muslim. It is believed many turned against him and the Government because of the Iraq war.
The far-Right British National Party is hoping to cash in on the mounting anger. It is drawing up a battle plan to split Mr Straw’s support at the next election.
Spokesman Dr Phil Edwards accused the MP of playing a “subtle” race card in a bid to boost his appeal with white working class voters.
“We have been saying this about Muslim dress for some time,” he said. “It’s all part of the problems of a multi-cultural Britain that he and the Labour Party helped to create.”
Salim Mulla, secretary of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, has called for a meeting with Mr Straw this week to force him to explain why he feels that Muslim women should lift their veils when they attend his constituency surgeries.
Mr Mulla, a Blackburn councillor, said: “I have spoken to Jack and told him he should not have said what he said. We are going to have a meeting some time next week to discuss it further.”
Ibrahim Master, a member of the Labour Party who played a key role in 60-year-old Mr Straw’s last election victory, said: “We feel it is very difficult to take because it comes from a man who knows a great deal about the Muslim community. It’s like a family member going against us.
“This is a very sensitive issue and he has said it publicly without any form of consultation. The Muslim community feels angry and let down.”
Mr Straw was believed to be in Washington last night, but faces hostile protests when he returns to Britain this week. Muslim campaigners have vowed to stage protests at every constituency meeting he holds until he issues a public apology.
About 100 demonstrators, including Muslim women in veils, gathered outside Blackburn town hall yesterday to voice their anger over the row which has made headlines round the world.
Many said they felt Mr Straw, who was demoted by Tony Blair from Foreign Secretary in the last Cabinet reshuffle, had deliberately sparked the controversy to raise his profile in the hope of becoming Deputy Prime Minister when John Prescott retires.
Protest organiser Yaasmin Mubarak, 38, said: “Jack Straw is really in trouble here. We want him to apologise and will keep on protesting until he does. I feel outraged and want him out of his job. The majority of Muslim women want him out.”
Aisha Rehman, 18, attended yesterday’s demo wearing a black niqab veil which covered her whole face except her eyes.
“Jack Straw should resign,” she said. “He’s supposed to be an MP for the whole town, but he’s discriminating against Muslim women. I thought he was a decent man but he’s not.”
Yesterday’s protest was told how a young Muslim girl wearing a niqab in Blackburn was confronted by three angry youths on Friday night. One of the trio threw a newspaper at the terrified girl and shouted at her: “Jack has told you to take off your veil.” And in Toxteth, Liverpool, a 49-year-old Muslim woman had her veil snatched from her by a white man in his 60s. Inspector Saied Mostaghel, of Merseyside Police, said: “She was left feeling shocked and upset.”
Labour MPs yesterday sprang to Mr Straw’s defence. Janet Anderson said: “I think the full veils can be seen as intimidating.”
And Tory Gerald Howarth said Parliament may be forced to change the law to ban the veils. “I don’t think we need to legislate today but the time may come — if this fashion grows — where we need to. It’s time we stood up for our Christian heritage.”
Additional reporting by Eugene Henderson and Andy Tristem