British ex-minister stirs up debate on Muslim integration
LONDON (AP) — Britain has been plunged into a debate over Islamic integration after revelations that former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asks Muslim women visiting his office to remove their veils and a Muslim policeman was excused from guarding the Israeli Embassy.
The uproars have left many questioning whether Britain’s multicultural ideals can withstand the strains of a cultural divide that is increasingly tormenting much of Europe.
Straw said in a newspaper column published Thursday that he believes the veils favoured by some Muslim women inhibit communication and are a sign of division in society. At his constituency office, he said he asks that veiled women reveal their faces, adding that the women have always complied, and a female assistant is always present.
On Friday, British media quoted Straw as saying that he would prefer that Muslim women not wear veils at all.
“I just find it uncomfortable if I’m trying to have a conversation with someone whose face I can’t see,” Straw told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Many Muslims in Straw’s parliamentary district of Blackburn, in northwestern England, reacted with outrage.
“It is trivial to suggest that you need to see someone’s face to speak to them freely. People can still communicate with a veil on,” said Fauzia Ali, 23.
Ali, who does not wear a veil, added: “I know some women would refuse to leave the house if they had to remove them.”
The Straw controversy erupted just as Britain was abuzz over news that London police had excused a Muslim officer, who is of Syrian descent and has a Lebanese wife, from standing guard at the Israeli Embassy during the recent Lebanon conflict.
Officials say they excused him because he cited concerns about his family’s safety and denied it was religiously or politically motivated.
For decades, Britain has prided itself on a growing multiculturalism. Workplaces have prayer rooms for Muslim employees to fulfil their daily prayer obligations, Sikh rights to wear turbans are enshrined in law, and Indian curry is practically a national dish.
“We have to respect people’s differences and decisions to go their separate ways but everybody in society, too, has got a responsibility toward the cohesion of our society and so I just wanted to put that on the table,” Straw told the BBC.