Veils debate could spark ‘fire on streets’

The recent debate over Muslim women wearing full face veils could see a return of riots as seen in Barnsley and Oldham in 2001, Britain’s race watchdog chief has warned.

Trevor Phillips said that sporadic criticism of Muslims and the over-sensitivity of those within Islam could “be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago”.

The head of the Commission for Racial Equality wrote in the Sunday Times that “this time the conflict would be much worse – we need to chill”.

Cabinet minister Jack Straw prompted the debate over veils when he revealed he asks Muslim women visiting his constituency office to remove them, while Tony Blair has called veils a “mark of separation”.

“The so-called Muslim leaders who initially attacked [Mr] 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,” Mr Phillips wrote.

“This was as much a comment about him and his generation as it was about the niqab. It maybe that people like [Mr] Straw have greater difficulty coping with the social gap that not seeing someone’s face undoubtedly creates.”

The race relations chief claimed that what should have been a “proper conversation” between Britons had been turned into “something ugly”; and a “trial of a particular community”.

“All the recent evidence shows that we are, as a society, becoming more socially polarised by race and faith,” Mr Phillips concluded.