Why Labour should reject Jack Straw’s comments on veil

Muslims under siege

Owen Jones, Poplar & Limehouse Constituency Labour Party, surveys the responses to Jack Straw’s comments on the niqab.

Labour Left Briefing, November 2006

“Ministers caught telling the truth!” announced the BNP on their website on 15th October as they hailed “a series of statements which show that some of our rulers are capable of speaking the truth and acknowledging commonsense after all.” No wonder the BNP feels vindicated. Over the past month, the already besieged Muslim community has faced a barrage of denunciations from the British political establishment.

The increasingly thuggish John Reid fired the opening shots in east London on 20th September by haranguing Muslim parents to spy on their own children “before their hatred grows and you risk losing them forever.” This carefully choreographed political stunt was followed by a further tirade at Labour Party Conference in which he pledged that Islamist terrorism would have “no no-go areas”. David Cameron momentarily forgot his cuddly rhetoric and pledged “break up Muslim ghettos.”

However, it was Jack Straw who opened the floodgates of the current deluge of anti-Muslim hysteria. His description of the niqab – a full body veil worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women – as a “sign of separation and difference” was music to the ears of the right wing media. “Ban the veil!” screeched the Daily Express, revealing that 98% supported such a ban in order to “safeguard racial harmony”.

In The Times, Simon Jenkins suggested that if Muslim women were unable to understand why a “westerner” might be offended by the veil, “it is reasonable to ask why they want to live in Britain.” Jon Gaunt in The Sun offered the nuanced argument that “no group has been such a pain in the burka as some of the Muslims in recent years…” Others took the opportunity to declare open season on the Muslim population. “Muslim cabbie bans guide dog” was the almost farcical Evening Standard headline.

Other members of the New Labour clique were quick to jump on Straw’s carefully prepared bandwagon. Gordon Brown was one of the earliest to declare in Straw’s favour. Blair agreed that the veil was a “mark of separation” that made people from other backgrounds feel uncomfortable. Phil Woolas, the minister with responsibility for race relations, suggested that women who cover their faces can be “frightening and intimidating” and called for a veiled Muslim class assistant in Dewsbury to be sacked. By wearing the veil, she had “put herself in a position where she can’t do her job” – he declared, without hint of irony.

The Guardian reported that the Government is asking lecturers and university staff to spy on “Asian-looking” and Muslim students they suspect of being involved in Islamic extremism. Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland suggested if this onslaught were directed against Jews, “I would be looking for my passport.”

Muslim organisations have reported that racist incidents have spiralled since this intentionally manufactured crisis broke out. In Toxteth, a Muslim woman had her veil ripped from her face; in east London, a woman’s hijab was pulled off her head before she was thrown to the ground; in Glasgow, an imam was violently assaulted; in Falkirk, a mosque was set alight; and in Windsor, a Muslim-owned dairy was petrol bombed. Across Britain, an already demonised community lives under a climate of fear.

One of the few politicians to speak out against the rising tide of hatred was Labour leadership challenger John McDonnell. “The historic parallels with the persecution of the Catholic minority in this country three centuries ago and the Jews even further back in our history are striking,” he said. “It is now our time to stand up in solidarity with Muslim members of our community.”