Jack Straw, the leader of the UK’s House of Commons and one of the most prominent members of the British Labour Party, has enraged British Muslims by saying that he would prefer that Muslim women not wear a face veil. Straw explained: “I come to this out of a profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim communities and an equal concern about adverse development about parallel communities. What I’ve been struck by when I’ve been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations.”
About Muslim worries over their religious freedom, he remarked: “I understand the concerns but I hope, however, there can be a mature debate about this.”
No such luck. In Straw’s constituency of Blackburn, protesters charged that he had betrayed them. Ibrahim Master, a Muslim and a Labour Party leader who worked on Straw’s last reelection campaign, said that Straw’s statements were “like a family member going against us. … The Muslim community feels angry and let down.” Muslim protestors declared that they would continue protests until Straw apologized. Yaasmin Mubarak, one of the organizers of the protest, said: “Jack Straw is really in trouble here. We want him to apologise and will keep on protesting until he does. I feel outraged and want him out of his job. The majority of Muslim women want him out.”
Calls for Straw to resign made Madeleine Bunting’s scolding of Straw in The Guardian particularly ironic, especially given his long history of solicitude for Britain’s Muslims. “So forget comfort,” she said, “and accept the starting point for any kind of tolerance: that it’s not easy, that it requires imagination, that it makes demands of us. Learn new forms of communication and your world expands.” But apparently the obligation of tolerance was entirely Straw’s responsibility, not that of the Muslim community.
And indeed, that may have been why some members of that community reacted so vehemently to what was from Straw simply an invitation to the assimilation and integration that European governments have been faulted in other contexts for not offering to Muslims. For Straw’s remarks came at a time when the British government (and notably Straw himself) has been particularly solicitous of Muslims in Britain—making Straw’s comments unexpected in both content and source. Recently in Britain, the Sun tabloid revealed that in South London’s Belmarsh prison, Muslim prisoners were given book catalogues containing books exhorting to violent jihad—which they could freely order. A Muslim policeman was excused from duty guarding the Israeli Embassy; although British officials hastened to insist that this decision was not made for reasons of political correctness, during the controversy it came to light that the policeman had been married by longtime British jihad leader Omar Bakri—raising additional questions about the vetting of applicants to the police force. These revelations of a certain softness toward jihad terror activity came at the same time as a Church of England briefing was leaked asserting that: “the government has given signals that appear to encourage the notion of a privileged relationship with sections of the Muslim community.”
Of course, it may be because of these and other indications of the government’s race to accommodate jihadists and Muslims in general that Straw felt it necessary to apply the brakes. And not all Muslim reaction was negative. Saira Khan wrote in the Times that “the growing number of women veiling their faces in Britain is a sign of radicalisation. … The veil … sends out a clear message: ‘I do not want to be part of your society.’”
But Haleema Hussein of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee of the U.K. unwittingly enunciated just how far apart Britain’s Muslim leadership and the British government are when she declared on BBC television that Straw “shouldn’t be allowed to comment on these kind of issues.” Freedom of speech wasn’t part of her calculus. It was one small indication that Britain from the community cohesion and mature debate that Straw was calling for in the first place were quite a long way off.