Opinion: Ministers exacerbate Muslim alienation

Jack Straw may have set out to create a media debate about racial integration, but apart from the fact that we now know the difference between a hijab and a niqab, the only thing the Government has achieved is further social division.

It may seem accidental that at least four ministers have made statements about Muslim communities in recent weeks, but they all knew exactly what they were doing and why. It began with John Reid going to East London to tell locals they had to spy on fundamentalists.

But then the Home Secretary knows all about fundamentalist beliefs, having been a practising Catholic all his life and one who has voted against abortion at every opportunity since being elected as an MP.

Reid's speech was about as well received as if he had worn his Celtic scarf at a Rangers game. It did go down well with the white working-class though, and no doubt with the trade union members who will have a vote in the Labour leadership election.

Ruth Kelly, an even more devout Catholic, joined the fray, too. She wanted to review measures aimed at stopping so-called Muslim extremists influencing students in universities. Personally, I'd  expect the minister responsible for race relations to have a rather more cautious media strategy.

Finally, Phil Woolas MP told the Sunday papers that the female Muslim teacher who wanted to wear the niqab in the presence of men should be sacked, ensuring the ‘veil row' stayed in the headlines. As a former spin doctor for the GMB union - and a very good one at that - Woolas knew exactly how this would play in the media. He also knows only too well that the core Labour voters are deserting the party in droves, particularly in his constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth. Populist stuff indeed.

Can you imagine the uproar if the Tory Party had launched such a sustained attack on Muslims?  They would have been accused of stirring up racial hatred.

The Government may think it has a clever PR strategy on this, but there are many inconsistencies: How can a government that has encouraged ‘faith' schools, and nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland and Scotland (where sectarianism is rife), take a principled stand against religious bigots?

And how ironic that there are still some in government who object to Turkey joining the EU because it is a Muslim state, when Turkish women are banned from wearing headscarves in state controlled areas on the ‘principle of equality and secularism'.

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