- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Salman Rushdie praised a British official yesterday for raising the difficult issue of whether Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils.

The comment by Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary who now is leader of the House of Commons, has plunged Britain into a debate about Islamic integration.

“It’s important these issues are raised and discussed, and I think it’s perfectly sensible if you raise it in a measured and considered way, which he did,” Mr. Blair said of Mr. Straw during an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. television outside his office. “I think we can have these discussions without people becoming hysterical either way about it.”

Mr. Rushdie, whose book “The Satanic Verses” once led to death threats against him by Islamic clerics, told BBC radio that Mr. Straw “was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils [deserve contempt], which they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women.”

Mr. Straw said in a newspaper column published Thursday that the veils favored by some Muslim women inhibit communication and are a sign of division in society. At his constituency office, Mr. Straw said, he asks that veiled women reveal their faces, adding that the women have always complied, and a female assistant is always present.

On Friday, British press quoted Mr. Straw as going further, saying he would prefer that Muslim women not wear veils at all. “I just find it uncomfortable if I’m trying to have a conversation with someone whose face I can’t see,” he told the BBC.

Many Muslims in Mr. Straw’s parliamentary district of Blackburn, in northwestern England, reacted with outrage.

The uproar also left many questioning whether Britain’s multicultural ideals can withstand the strains of a cultural divide that is increasingly tormenting much of Europe.

The difficulty of the issue was obvious during the Blair interview when he was asked whether he would prefer a Muslim woman he met took off her veil.

“I think in the end, it’s a matter of them choosing what they want to do,” Mr. Blair said.

“It’s a difficult and tricky debate to enter into, as we can see over the past few days,” Mr. Blair said, but he praised the way Mr. Straw handled it.

For decades, Britain has prided itself on multiculturalism. Workplaces have rooms for Muslim employees to fulfill their daily prayer obligations, Sikh rights to wear turbans are enshrined in law, and Indian curry is practically a national dish.

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