The head of Britain’s race relations watchdog has warned that the row over Muslim women wearing the veil could spill over into violence.
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said divisions created by the veil row risked becoming “the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago. Only this time the conflict could be much worse”.
He wrote in an article for the Sunday Times: “All the recent evidence shows that we are, as a society, becoming more socially polarised by race and faith. The only place where this may not be true is in our schools, and the main reason is that in many of our cities things cannot get any worse.”
He used the article to call for a “civilised” debate on race.
Mr Phillips said Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, had been right to reveal publicly that he had asked Muslim women to remove their veils during his constituency surgeries.
He criticised Muslims who had attacked Mr Straw, saying: “The so-called Muslim leaders who initially attacked Straw were wrong. They were overly defensive and need to accept that in a diverse society we should be free to make polite requests of this kind.”
He said the debate was becoming polarised, with those on one side wanting a “fully fledged auto-da-fe [burning of a heretic] against British Muslims”, and on the other hand the defensiveness of some in Muslim communities who turned “the most neutral of comments into yet another act of persecution”.
He added: “This is not what anyone intended and it is the last thing Britain needs.”