The row over religious dress and the integration of communities escalated yesterday as the shadow home secretary, David Davis, attacked Muslim leaders for risking “voluntary apartheid”, while the government’s race minister said a teaching assistant who refused to remove her veil in the classroom should be sacked.
But the Muslim Council of Britain, whose relationship with the government has become increasingly strained, hit back by accusing ministers of stigmatising British Muslims with a “relentless barrage” of instructions on how to behave. In a letter to Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, secretary general Muhammad Bari warned: “Some Muslims have even sought the MCB’s advice on whether they should change their names in order to avoid anti-Muslim remarks. This is what happens when a community is singled out by those at the helm of affairs.”
Labour parliamentarians also criticised their colleagues, with Lord Ahmed – Britain’s first Muslim peer – telling the BBC: “Politicians and some people in the media have used [the existence of a few extremists] for the demonisation of entire communities.”
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A row which began with Jack Straw’s comments on whether wearing the veil encouraged community division appeared to many to be running out of control yesterday.
A Labour backbench MP, Khalid Mahmood, said: “The debate [over veils] has turned Islamophobic. It is Jack [Straw’s] fault for raising it. He knows what offence would be caused and what issues would be attached on the back of it. It plays into the hands of extremists on the far right, such as the BNP, and on the Muslim side.”
Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, told BBC Radio 4: “I think the media, politicians and others need to take a kind of reality check and get a balance on this because there is no doubt it is having a corrosive impact in the main … You can’t have a real debate on issues when one part of the community feels it is being targeted.”
But in an article for the Sunday Telegraph Mr Davis said Mr Straw’s article raised a fundamental issue of whether Britain was “inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid”. He added that creating a united society required compromises, but also “a determined signal about what we as a nation will and will not accept”.
There was a “growing feeling that the Muslim community is excessively sensitive to criticism, unwilling to engage in substantive debate”, he added.
Mr Davis suggested it was “not wise” to comment on individual cases, such as that of the teaching assistant suspended by a school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, for wearing the niqab in the classroom. Ashah Azmi, who has taken her case to an employment tribunal, said she would remove the full veil if no adult males were present.
Phil Woolas, the communities minister, told the Sunday Mirror that the teaching assistant was “denying the right of children to a full education”, adding: “She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can’t do her job. If she is saying that she won’t work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in schools. That’s sexual discrimination.”
In a separate development, it has emerged that new faith schools will be required to offer at least a quarter of classroom places to non-believers where there is demand. The education secretary, Alan Johnson, will table an amendment to the government’s education and inspection bill in the Lords this week.
Under the new measures local authorities will be able to require a new school to admit 25% of non-believers where it is “reasonable”. The matter can be taken to the education secretary on appeal.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said it did not comment on leaked documents. The measures were revealed in a letter obtained by the Sunday Times.
Phil Woolas, communities and local government minister:
“She should be sacked. She has put herself where she can’t do her job. You can’t have a teacher who wears a veil because men are in the room.”
David Davis, shadow home secretary
“There is a growing feeling that the Muslim community is excessively sensitive to criticism. Are we going to allow the division of communities that will corrode our society?”
David Blunkett, ex-home secretary
“We should not go out of our way to avoid saying things we want to say because we might cause a rumpus.”