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Blair backs suspension of veil woman

Tony Blair fuelled the debate on multiculturalism and integration in British society yesterday as he backed a local authority's decision to suspend a Muslim classroom assistant for refusing to remove her full face veil at school.

During the first Downing Street press conference since the summer recess, and the botched attempt to remove him from office, the Muslim question dominated, whether it was on the extent to which people should wear the veil, the Iraq war, or the future of faith schools.

The Prime Minister stepped into the controversy over the niqab, sparked by Jack Straw two weeks ago in an article in the Lancashire Telegraph, in which he said the veil was a visible statement of separation and of difference.

Although a tranche of MPs, far beyond the four Muslims who sit in the House of Commons, are dismayed by the row, Mr Blair signalled his determination to confront the government's growing concerns about the lack of community integration, and how in particular the Muslim community integrated with British society.

Declaring his full support for the way the council dealt with Aishah Azmi at Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, he said the controversy triggered by the incident revealed the need for a wider debate about community integration.

Implicitly acknowledging the failure of successive governments' policies on multiculturalism, he argued for a rethink. Treading carefully, Mr Blair said people in the UK were seeking a balance between preserving a distinctive identity and integration.

When asked if a Muslim woman wearing a veil could make a contribution to society, he said: "That's a very difficult question. It is a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable. No-one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it.

That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society." Last night, the lawyer acting for teaching assistant Aishah Azmi called Mr Blair's comments irresponsible and said he was considering seeking an injunction against the Prime Minister to stop him saying anything further about the case.

Nick Whittingham, telling BBC Radio Leeds he was concerned Mr Blair could prejudice the tribunal, said: "It's a case which has been heard but the decision has not been made yet. It concerns religious discrimination legislation and it could potentially affect Muslim women all across Europe.

"It's not been fully worked out yet and it involves complex legal and factual issues, so it's something which we consider very irresponsible for the Prime Minister to be interfering with by making direct comments about.

We feel that by doing that he's in breach of the Ministerial Code, he's in breach of the Constitutional Reform Act and potentially interfering with our client's human rights under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act which is the right to a fair trial," he added.

Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, added his voice to those condemning the wearing of the full veils. He said that Muslim immigrant women should not be completely "hidden" behind full veils if they want to integrate and become part of Italy's future.

(The Herald)

 

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