Ministers were accused of playing into the hands of the far right and of Islamic extremists as a Labour backlash grew against the Government’s continuing focus on Muslim issues. Senior MPs and peers signalled their alarm at the furore triggered 10 days ago by Jack Straw’s call for women to reconsider wearing face veils. They said the Muslim community felt under siege following a succession of recent headlines generated by the Government.
Mr Straw’s comments were followed by another minister calling for the dismissal of a teacher who refused to take off her veil and an attack by Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, on moderate Muslims who “sit on the sidelines” in the fight against terrorism. It has also emerged that the Department for Education wanted lecturers to monitor “Asian-looking” and Muslim students suspected of involvement in terrorism. Several ministers believe the recent controversies show the Government is in tune with widespread concerns in the country.
But Khalid Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, warned: “There’s been a huge hype over a small number of people and the only thing this has led to is Muslim-bashing. The only people this will benefit are the far-right BNP. It will also encourage extremists from the Muslim community who will say: ‘We told you so.”‘
The Labour peer Baroness Uddin pleaded with the Government to work to help women lead the fight against extremism. She said: “We have attacked those who would be our greatest allies in meeting the current challenges of terrorism and radicalisation.” She warned that the row over veils had caused “havoc” in the Muslim community and created “a feeling of vulnerability and demonisation of Muslim women”.
Lord Ahmed, another Labour peer, said members of the Muslim community were considering leaving Britain because of the row. “People are asking: ‘What is our future here, do you think we should be taking our money and going somewhere else because this country has so much Islamophobia?'”
The Labour MP John Denham, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, warned: “I’m worried there has been a series of pronouncements by government ministers, each one of which is individually unexceptional, but put them together it does look like a barrage of general criticism.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Labour Party ethnic minority task force, said: “The community feels it’s time the story moved on. They aren’t going to change their religious ways because of a few statements from ministers or others. They want to get on with their lives.”
Downing Street and Ms Kelly rejected claims that the Government was “demonising” Muslims with the move to monitor students. She struck a conciliatory note after meeting police chiefs and local council leaders in London. She said many groups understood the need for a fresh approach to “face up to” the extremist threat.
Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, also entered the debate. She said: “Women who are heavily veiled, whose identity is obscured to the world apart from their husband, cannot take their full place in society.”
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties pressure group Liberty, said: “There is nothing more British than religious tolerance. It is particularly shocking that the recent so-called ‘mature debate’ may have prompted physical attacks on women in traditional dress.”