LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped into the debate over the integration of Muslims into British society on Tuesday, calling the full veil worn by some Muslim women “a mark of separation.”
Controversy has erupted in Britain over the wearing of the veil with some leaders of Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims accusing the government of stirring up Islamophobia.
The radicalization of some young British Muslims, rammed home in July last year when British-born Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 people on London transport, has raised questions about whether Britain has done enough to integrate Muslims.
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Blair, who has until now encouraged the debate on integration without expressing an opinion on veils, came the closest he has to taking sides.
Asked if a woman who wore the veil could make a full contribution to British society, Blair said: “It is a mark of separation and that’s why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable.”
“No one wants to say that people don’t have the right to do it, that’s to take it too far, but I think we do need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly with our society and all the evidence is when people do integrate more they achieve more as well.
“I’m not saying anyone should be forced to do anything,” he told his monthly news conference.
Blair also said he fully supported the way a local education authority had handled the case of a Muslim teaching assistant who was suspended for wearing a veil.
Aishah Azmi, 24, said the veil, which left just her eyes exposed, had never been a problem for pupils at the school in northern England where she taught.
The school told Azmi she could wear the veil in corridors but must remove it when teaching, but she refused. Her case is currently before an employment tribunal.
The issue of veils was thrust into the spotlight this month when former foreign secretary Jack Straw said Muslim women who wore full veils made community relations difficult.
Blair called for a debate on how the Muslim community integrates into British society and on how Islam comes to terms with the modern world.
His government has begun to question whether Britain’s traditional policy of promoting a multicultural society — where different communities live side by side without having a single British identity imposed on them — has backfired by contributing toward the isolation of some communities.
The government’s focus on Muslim extremism and integration prompted the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Islamic group, to write to Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly this week complaining an entire community was being stigmatized.
“What is happening, especially in the last few months, has been a barrage of demonization of the Muslim community to such an extent that the community is now scared and the whole community feels vulnerable,” MCB General Secretary Muhammad Abdul Bari told BBC Radio.