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Last Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Debate about veils is 'healthy'
A Muslim woman wearing a veil
Jack Straw asks women to remove the veil in meetings
MPs and Muslim leaders have said the debate surrounding women wearing the veil is "healthy".

They said honest debate helped to break down barriers between Muslims and other sections of British society.

Government ministers were also right to give their views on British Muslims, they said.

Their comments came after the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said recent pronouncements by ministers had "demonised" Muslims.

Muslim human rights campaigner Ahlam Akram said the MCB was being "too sensitive".

"This debate is good and healthy," she said.

"Muslims are feeling very alienated at the moment. We are worried about what is happening in this country. But we, and organisations like the MCB, are getting too sensitive.

"Generally we Muslims are afraid of having debates. Anything out of the Muslim norm and we get afraid.

"We live in a country which guarantees our freedom and freedom of speech and it's about time we used that to have a debate."

'One dimensional'

The government is facing criticism from Islamic groups over the issue of whether Muslim women who insist on wearing veils are hindering integration.

The controversy was sparked two weeks ago by Commons' leader Jack Straw when he admitted asking Muslim women if they would remove their veils when visiting his Blackburn constituency offices.

Over the weekend, the continuing row focused on Muslim teaching assistant, Aishah Azmi, who was suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class.

Government minister Phil Woolas angered some Muslim groups by calling for the 23-year-old to be sacked.

But Ms Azmi's MP Shahid Malik said ministers had been right to give their views and said it had resulted in helpful debate.

"The thing that stigmatised Muslims in this country was the events of July 7, last year.

"This is another example of the one dimensional perspective that organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain have all the time.

"It is unhelpful. The government has a right and responsibility to intervene. The government is here for everyone.

"It is government intervention that can act as a catalyst to get people thinking about different issues.

"If we don't talk about these things they are stored up for the future. It's best sometimes to get them out."

The debate, surrounding the veil and other issues, should take place within the Muslim community but there isn't a neutral platform
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui

Keighley MP Ann Cryer, whose constituency contains a large Muslim community and who came out in support of Jack Straw, said: "Any debate is healthy.

"But the sad part is that there is a very large silent majority of Muslims who do not speak out.

"I have no doubt they agree with Jack Straw and also with what I've been saying about issues such as forced marriages."

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the lobby group the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said ministers had provoked a debate which was needed.

"My opinion is that this debate should take place and ministers are right to voice their views," he said.

"The debate, surrounding the veil and other issues, should take place within the Muslim community but there isn't a neutral platform.

"All of them are religious and sectarian. Everything is coloured by the front they take. As a result the only platform left is the wider society. So I welcome the debate."

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