(This post has been updated and revamped.)
Personally, as I've made clear in the past, I don't weigh in on the 'what Muslim women must wear' issue, partly because I'm not female, but mostly because there are already enough men (Muslim or otherwise) telling Muslim women what and what not to wear, whether they're French or German or Iranian or Saudi. I am sure Muslim women are intelligent enough to come to a conclusion that fits with their conscience. Although it appears freedom of expression and conscience, trumpeted by Champions of Freedom and Liberty, goes out of the window when it comes to a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman, exercising it.
Is Jack Straw specifically targetting Muslims? Yes, and no. He wants a "debate" and that's fine. Muslims should not develop shrill voices should such concerns be raised. Instead, we should take the spirit of 'inviting them in the best ways' (something I also need to take on board) in responding. Straw could, however, begin by asking his friends who run Blackburn's mosques to let women into the 'public sphere' where Muslims debate issues. Instead, he's taken the easy route, with one eye on a potential deputy leadership position post-Blair (something he's obviously dismissed), and picked on a minority within a minority. What better way to show the country that he's going against the (perceived) grain, and showing off his political machismo, by telling a few Muslim women (since the percentage of Muslim women veiling is probably small) what they should wear. It's generally risk free, and gets him a few plus points for being 'tough in defending British values' from certain sections in the press. In this respect, he isn't specifically targetting Muslims, but merely continuing the long, dubious, tradition of picking on some kind of 'folk demon' of the day. Single mothers, immigrants, gypsies and teenagers have all been used in a similar manner by various politicians over the years.
If he wanted a fair(er) debate, he should also have pointed out the unfair and discriminatory attitudes that people have towards Muslim women, whether or not they wear the niqab, which checks their progress in wider society. In this he would have at least been seen to balance his concerns with the niqab; and there is nothing to say he can't have such concerns or, indeed, express them openly. What's more, he should clearly come out and say that in the interests of the debate, people who disagree with him be given the chance to express their views without being silenced under the threat of being labelled extremists, fanatics, etc. What's also worth noting is how far does a politician talking about religious practices violate the separation of church and state? Of course, we do not have a complete separation of the two.
And the BBC reports that a Muslim woman had her veil snatched from her while standing at a bus stop in Liverpool, by a man shouting racist abuse. Nothing to say its related to Straw's comments, but maybe the man was distressed by the veil and took pre-emptive action?
Let's hope and pray our friends from
al-Muhajiroun al-Ghuraaba The Saviour Sect Brothers Against Car Insurance do not turn up and do something completely stupid (heckling extremists like Comrade Reid is alright with me though).