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
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.