UK racial equality head appeals for honest debate in Muslim veil controversy

UK racial equality head appeals for honest debate in Muslim veil controversy

[JURIST] Trevor Phillips [official profile], chairman of the UK Commission for Racial Equality [official website], warned Sunday that if communication about social differences does not improve in Britain, riots could erupt there in the wake of a religious dress [JURIST news archive] debate prompted by comments from House of Commons leader Jack Straw [official profile] and the suspension of a Muslim UK teacher for wearing a full-face veil – a niqab [Wikipedia backgrounder] – in the classroom. In an editorial [text] in the Sunday Times, Phillips wrote:

There is a danger that increasingly we are so afraid to speak to each other about our differences that nobody can say what they mean and nobody can hear what is meant.

So I welcome the debate. The problem with it so far is that it has been conducted in the wrong place between the wrong people and about the wrong things. I had no concerns about Jack Straw's initial careful expression of concern about the wearing of the veil in his surgery [constituency office]. After all, this was as much a comment about him and his generation as it was about the niqab. It may be that people like Straw have greater difficulty coping with the social gap that not seeing someone's face undoubtedly creates; for the internet generation, who can conduct entire relationships through a computer screen, this may not be quite the same kind of barrier. Either way, it was entirely reasonable for him to express his discomfort.

Straw's comments could have liberated us to say that sometimes we don't like the way others behave, without turning it into an accusation about their faith or race. 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….

We must celebrate our differences, but if that is all we do we ignore the feelings of the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits. No amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities.

If we don’t talk about this honestly, we have seen in this country, in Holland, in France and in the United States what happens next. In 1963 the great African-American writer James Baldwin quoted an old spiritual in a famous essay, correctly predicting the civil strife that was to come: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, Said no more water, but the fire next time.”

The current UK veil controversy was ignited last month when Straw wrote a column [text] for the Lancashire Telegraph saying that he asks Muslim women who visit his constituency office to remove their veils before speaking with him because he "felt uncomfortable about talking to someone "face-to-face" who I could not see." The remarks provoked a firestorm of political controversy which eventually led Prime Minister Tony Blair to describe wearing of the niqab as “a mark of separation” [BBC report].

Meanwhile, Aishah Azmi [BBC profile], a Muslim teaching assistant suspended by a British school for refusing to remove her niqab, has said she will appeal [JURIST report] the suspension. Azmi was suspended after being told that her pupils were less likely to understand her when she spoke from behind her veil. She sued for racial discrimination and lost, but was awarded £1,100 (about US $2,100) for "injury to her feelings" caused by local education authority's handling of her complaint. AP has more. The Guardian has additional coverage.