Muslim anger as British MPs speak out against wearing veils

The row over whether it is appropriate for Muslim women to wear face veils in mainstream Britain intensified yesterday as more senior Labour and Tory politicians spoke out against the practice.

Phil Woolas, Race and Faith Minister, insisted that Aishah Azmi, a primary school classroom assistant, should be sacked for refusing to remove her veil in front of male colleagues.

His comments were backed by David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary, and David Blunkett, former Home Secretary, but condemned by the Muslim Council of Britain.

Osama Saeed, Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, accused politicians of jumping on the bandwagon for their own advantage.

In an apparent hardening of the Conservatives’ attitude to radical Islam, Mr Davis argued that wearing a veil was “not appropriate” in certain jobs and launched a stinging attack on Muslim leaders for risking “voluntary apartheid”.

Mr Davis warned of closed societies being created in the UK, and said religious divides threatened to corrode fundamental values such as freedom of speech.

The outspoken comments came at the end of a week in which the furore over race relations has grown steadily, after Jack Straw said he asked female Muslim constituents to lift their veils during private discussions.

Some Muslim groups condemned the Leader of the Commons for “selectively discriminating” on the basis of religion. But Mr Davis expressed sympathy with Mr Straw’s position, and suggested the problem went deeper, affecting the “very unity of our nation”.

He said: “What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether, in Britain, we are developing a divided society. Whether we are creating a series of closed societies within our open society. Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid.”

He added: “There is no doubt that when you are in a job that requires communication, requires the use of your face to communicate, it lays down what you should wear and whether you should cover your face. My inclination is that wearing a veil is not appropriate in that job.”

He said it was “entirely proper” for Mr Straw to ask a constituent to remove the veil.

Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, west Yorkshire, confirmed on Friday that it had suspended 24-year-old Ms Azmi, who has taken her case to an employment tribunal.

The school is understood to have deemed face-to-face contact was essential in her role as a bilingual support worker. It has stressed that the action had nothing to do with religion.

Ms Azmi said she had been willing to remove the garment in class as long as there were no adult males present. But Mr Woolas said yesterday: “By insisting that she will wear the veil if men are there, she’s saying: ‘I’ll work with women not men.’ That is sexual discrimination. No headteacher could agree to that.”

Parallels have been drawn between Ms Azmi’s case and that of Nadia Eweida, British Airways check-in worker, who claims she was effectively forced to take unpaid leave after refusing to remove or conceal a small crucifix necklace. The airline says items such as turbans, hijabs and bangles can be openly worn “as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms”.

Christian groups have branded British Airway’s ruling extremely offensive, and Miss Eweida, 55, now plans to sue her employer for religious discrimination.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said: “Frankly I think the British Airways order for her not to wear a cross was loopy. I don’t understand it, I don’t think anybody understands it.”

Mr Blunkett urged open discussion of integration issues.

He said: “We should not go out of our way to avoid saying things that we want to say because we might actually cause a rumpus.”

Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “This is an extraordinarily reckless intervention [ from Mr Woolas]. We uphold the right for freedom of speech and it is this same freedom which society holds which we also hold for the right to wear the Niqab.”

Mr Saeed said: “There is a lot of debate to be had within the Muslim community but these matters are not going to be resolved by the insincere approach of a lot of politicians,” he said.

“John Reid is behaving as if he is already Prime Minister, Jack Straw’s rating has gone up 30% since his remarks about the veil, and now the Tories want a piece of the action.

“It is not helping, it is inflaming the situation.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 16, 2006.
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