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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 October 2006, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Warning over UK race riot danger
Trevor Phillips
Trevor Phillips said Britain is becoming polarised
The polarised debate over full-face veils could spark race riots in the UK, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality has warned.

The issue "seems to have turned into something really quite ugly", Trevor Phillips told the Sunday Times.

"This could be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago," he said.

Labour MP Shahid Malik said the issue was becoming "deeply corrosive" and that far-right parties would benefit.

Jack Straw, Leader of the House of Commons, recently sparked a media debate by saying he preferred women not to wear full-face veils at his surgeries in his constituency because he believed they made communication difficult.

What should've been a proper conversation...seems to have been turned into the trial of a particular community
Trevor Phillips

Stories about a Christian British Airways worker wearing a cross over her uniform, and a Muslim teaching assistant wearing a full-face veil in the classroom, have also made headlines.

Mr Malik called the debate over the past couple of weeks "raw and ill-informed".

He said: "The main beneficiaries from this debate - because it is having a corrosive impact - will be the far-right, the British National Party, and organisations like al-Ghurabaa and al-Muhajiroun.

"They would want to divide this society and to exploit it and to create mayhem, and our job, mainstream Britain, mainstream society, is to obviously not allow them to do that."

'Need to chill'

Mr Phillips said the polarised debate over race and religion risked a repeat of the Burnley and Oldham riots, adding: "This time the conflict would be much worse - we need to chill."

He told BBC One's AM programme people the debate surrounding Muslim women wearing the veil had begun courteously but deteriorated.

"We need to have this conversation but there are rules by which we have the conversation which don't involve this kind of targeting and frankly bullying."

A Muslim woman wearing a veil
Mr Straw feels that covering faces can make community relations difficult

Mr Phillips drew comparisons between Britain and the racial tensions in France.

"We saw it in France last year where the French allowed north African communities to grow up completely separately, not feeling French," he said.

"Eventually that frustration, that exclusion boiled over into the kind of car burning we saw last year... I do not want that for Britain."

On Mr Straw's comments, Mr Phillips told the Sunday Times that Muslim leaders had been "overly defensive" in attacking the Blackburn MP.

'Injustice unleashed'

Massoud Shadjareh, from the lobby group the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told BBC News 24 that "ministers after ministers after ministers" had been attacking the Muslim community recently, which was unfair and "not a means of respectable dialogue".

"I have to say the Muslim community really has been extremely calm, and extremely responsible," he said.

Muslim Council of Britain secretary general Muhammad Abdul Bari said the integration debate had become "increasingly shrill and ugly".

He accused Mr Phillips of having a "poor track record" on this issue and criticised him for not mentioning recent attacks against Muslims which "accompanied this so-called debate".

Mr Abdul Bari said: "We have seen veils being forcefully pulled off Muslim women and Muslim individuals, including an imam in Glasgow, badly beaten up by thugs."

Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis said Mr Phillips was right, adding that it was "absolutely necessary" to have the debate.

An interview with Trevor Phillips

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