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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 20:12 GMT 21:12 UK
Analysis: Straw's veil comments
Muslim woman wearing veil
Does multiculturalism encourage integration?
Commons leader Jack Straw has suggested women wearing veils which cover the face can make relations between communities more difficult, and revealed that he asks women visiting his constituency surgery to consider removing them.

BBC News Home Editor Mark Easton examines the implications for the debate on British multiculturalism.

This was not some reflective little observation from Jack Straw about the protocols of MP/constituent meetings in a multicultural world.

This was a quite deliberate foray into what is becoming a real debate within Westminster: Does Britain's brand of multiculturalism work?

We are a country with an international reputation for tolerance built, over the past few decades, on a policy of supporting, indeed celebrating, cultural difference.

Faith schools

Government has encouraged ethnic communities in their desire for faith schools or religious holidays.

Official documents are translated into dozens of languages.

Laws have been passed to protect minority groups from religious as well as racial discrimination.

But now questions are being asked as to whether our approach encourages separateness when we should be encouraging integration.

The debate, of course, is all the more acute after the attacks of 7 July.

However, discussions on the wisdom of multiculturalism as it is currently defined pre-date the bombings.

Multiculturalism questioned

Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips has been raising eyebrows and a few hackles with his questioning of multiculturalism.

This summer, launching the new Commission for Integration and Cohesion, Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly asked: "In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each other, with no common bonds between them?"

Only on Wednesday, Conservative leader David Cameron used his conference speech to question what he called Muslim ghettoes.

"It worries me that we have allowed communities to grow up which live 'parallel lives', communities where people from different backgrounds never meet, never talk, never go into each others' homes."

Heated debate

So Jack Straw's intervention is not without precedent, but his direct focus on the veil is certain to inspire a heated debate.

The veil is an iconic part of Muslim culture - for many women it is a statement of cultural identity, of social modesty and of religious adherence.

A proportion may silently resent the fact that their husbands or families force them to cover up but there is a significant group for whom it is a free and happy choice.

Some even say it offers them a form of freedom.

And this is where the debate gets tricky.

It is that same sense of religious adherence that leads Sikhs to wear a turban, Jews a skull-cap or Christians a crucifix.

Public statement

They are making a public statement, a proclamation about their faith.

Jack Straw argues that the veil which covers the face goes further - physically separating those women from people outside their own communities.

In France, of course, they have banned schoolgirls from wearing head-scarves in schools - a determined move to impose a French secularity on the education system.

What Jack Straw is suggesting falls far short of that.

He only requests women to remove the veil at his surgery.

He only wants to initiate discussion about the impact the full veil has for Muslims themselves in terms of integration and social cohesion.

However, he must have known when he wrote his article that reaction from some quarters will be extremely hostile.

He said he wanted a debate. Well, he has got one.

Jack Straw explains his comments about Muslim veils

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