Muslim Veil Debate Could Start Riots

The “polarised” debate over Muslim women covering their faces could trigger riots, the head of Britain’s race relations watchdog warned yesterday.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said divisions created by the row risked becoming “the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago”. He warned: “Only this time the conflict could be much worse.”

Writing at the weekend, Mr Phillips said: “All the recent evidence shows that we are, as a society, becoming more socially polarised by race and faith. The only place where this may not be true is in our schools and the main reason is that in many of our cities things cannot get any worse.” Mr Phillips said Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, had been right to reveal publicly that he had asked Muslim women to remove their veils during his constituency surgeries. He criticised Muslims who had attacked Mr Straw, writing: “The so-called Muslim leaders who initially attacked Straw were wrong. They were overly defensive and need to accept that in a diverse society we should be free to make polite requests of this kind.”

He said the debate was becoming polarised, and wrote in an article for the Sunday Times: “This is not what anyone intended and it is the last thing Britain needs.” Mr Phillips, who claimed last year that Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation”, told BBC1’s Sunday AM yesterday: “I this morning really would not want to be a British Muslim because what should have been a proper conversation between all kinds of British people seems to have turned into a trial of one particular community, and that cannot be right. My job I guess is to be the referee here and to say stop. We need to have this conversation but there are rules by which we have the conversation which don’t involve this kind of targeting and, frankly, bullying.”

Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the debate about integration had become “increasingly ugly and shrill” in recent weeks.

He said: “We have seen veils being forcefully pulled off Muslim women, a number of mosques subjected to arson attacks, and Muslim individuals, including an imam in Glasgow, badly beaten up by thugs. This cannot be described as being merely a ‘debate’.”

The Labour MP Shahid Malik agreed with Mr Phillips’s comments that the veil debate could lead to the kind of riots seen in the north of England in 2001. He said: “Informed debate is obviously progressive and healthy but the raw and ill-informed debate over the last two weeks is becoming deeply corrosive.”

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: “Trevor Phillips is right. It is absolutely necessary that we have this debate but it is also absolutely necessary that it takes place in a civilised manner.”