Socialist Worker

Jack Straw's veil comments are ammunition for racists

The last week has seen a new wave of attacks on Muslims, including Jack Straw’s speech on veiled women. What’s behind the latest round of Islamophobia?

Issue No. 2022

Montage of newspaper cuttings

Montage of newspaper cuttings

Is it possible to get the question of racism and Islamophobia more wrong than Oldham Labour MP Phil Woolas did last weekend? Muslim women who cover their faces with veils, he told readers of the Sunday Mirror, can be “frightening and intimidating”. He added that Muslim veils could increase racial tensions in Britain.

“Most British-born Muslims who wear it do so as an assertion of their identity and religion. This can create fear and resentment among non-Muslims and lead to discrimination. Muslims then become even more determined to assert their identity, and so it becomes a vicious circle where the only beneficiaries are racists like the BNP,” he wrote.

So there you have it. Muslims are not victims of racism, Islamophobia and fascist violence - they have brought it on themselves.

And this incendiary rubbish is written by the man who is minister for local government and community cohesion - with special responsibility for race and faith!

The immediate cause of the wave of Islamophobia is the competition between politicians of all the major parties to be seen as “tough on Muslim extremism” and “tough on terror”.

Having created the conditions for terrorism through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tony Blair and his acolytes have set out to denounce their political opponents as “soft” if they do not agree to ever more brutal terror laws.

It is not our wars that fuel terror attacks, says Blair, it is the evil Muslims in our midst - and those who do not join in the hunt for them are equally guilty. On the back of such lies comes the succession of terror laws and the elimination of liberties held for hundreds of years.

More generally, war has been declared on “extremist Muslims”, a concept which grows ever wider. Last August Blair told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council that the conflict in the Middle East, as well as others involving Muslim “extremists”, revolve around “modernisation within Islam” and whether the Western ­system of values can “beat theirs”.

In February of this year Muslims were castigated for complaining because they had been insulted by the racist cartoons in Denmark. And then in September Pope Benedict XVI launched the latest phase of his attack on Islam.


Now politicians are scrabbling to be seen as the most vicious towards “terror suspects” and the most contemptuous of “politically correct” defences of Muslims. And their words are taken up by some as the trigger for racist violence.

At Labour’s conference home secretary John Reid trumpeted his determination not to be “bullied” by Muslim critics.

A few days later Falkirk’s Islamic centre was set on fire, causing £10,000 damage. Bricks and concrete blocks were thrown at cars parked in a mosque in Preston and a Muslim teenager was subsequently stabbed by the attackers.

Then at the Tory conference, David Cameron used his speech to claim he would “smash Muslim ghettos”, as Tory newspapers put it. That night Muslims faced petrol bomb attacks in Windsor.

The next day the press worked itself into lather about police officer Alexander Omar Basha who had been excused from duty outside the Israeli embassy (which he was not actually assigned to).

And Jack Straw launched his attack on the veil. The next day a Muslim woman’s veil was snatched from her by a man who shouted racist abuse at a bus stop in Liverpool. The 49 year old woman from Toxteth had her veil snatched by a tall white man in his 60s.

Have no doubt - this is a serious and accelerating situation in which Muslims are defined as potential or actual enemies.

This hysteria has opened the door to coded calls for harsher action. Simon Jenkins wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Times that “it is reasonable to ask why they [Muslim women who wear the veil] want to live in Britain”.

He added, “Those who claim such hospitality owe some duty of respect to their hosts, or at the very least ­cannot complain if the hosts object.”

Until recently Labour ministers would generally defend multiculturalism. Not any more. Last August, Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, called for a “new and honest debate” on the merits of multiculturalism.

In fact this “debate” means prescribing a notion of “British identity”, identified by the political establishment and implemented with increasing ruthlessness. It defines an “in” and an “out” group - with consequences for those deemed unwilling to adapt to the norm.


Look carefully at what Straw said. He described meeting a man and his wife who are constituents. She was friendly, polite, respectful, and gave off “signals which indicate common bonds - the entirely English accent, the couple’s education (wholly in the UK)”.

But he could not reconcile such elements with “the fact of the veil,” which made him feel “uncomfortable,” he wrote.

He decided that in future he would ask his female constituents to remove the veil when they came to his surgery because wearing it made “better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult”. A veiled woman could not, for Straw, be “one of us”.

New Labour’s creed of imperialist war and neo-liberalism is in trouble. So, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turn increasingly disastrous, the government seeks to target “enemies” at home. It is crucial we stand together against racist attacks and in solidarity with Muslims.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.