Jack Boot Straw?

A Statement from Respect national officers on Straw, the veil and Islamophobia

1) Jack Straw's inflammatory interview in the Lancashire Evening Post came at a time when there was already a feeding frenzy of anti-Muslim stories in the media and it has contributed significantly to taking Islamophobia to a new level. The week before John Reid had indicated his potential candidacy for the Labour leadership with one of the most right wing speeches ever made by a Labour Home Secretary. In it he talked of Muslim "no-go" areas and lectured Muslim parents on how to bring up their children. The following week, David Cameron got the headlines "I'll Smash Muslim Ghettos" when he echoed Reid. Straw's interview was part of his throwing his hat into the ring for Labour deputy leader. If that were not cynical enough, it came immediately after two nights of rioting against a Muslim-owned dairy in Windsor and a week after a racist stabbing outside a mosque in Preston . The following day the London Evening Standard ran a story about a Muslim cab driver who had been fined for refusing to accept a guide dog in the car. Billboards across the capital read: "Muslim Cabbie Snubs Blind Woman". Nowhere did the media report that a second, non-Muslim, driver had also refused to allow the dog in his car but had not been fined. Straw's comments could do nothing other than contribute to a witch-hunting atmosphere against Muslims.

2) Straw did not merely say that he "requests" that women wearing the nikab remove it when they go to his surgery. That would be bad enough: he is duty bound as an MP to represent and advocate for his constituents rather than place them in the position of explaining to him how they dress before he will talk to them. Imagine if a right wing Tory MP said he would prefer not to speak to a female constituent who had a nose ring and bare mid-riff. Straw went further. He said that the nikab was about dressing separately from the rest of society and therefore contributed to social division. It was on these grounds that he went on the following day to tell BBC Radio Four that he would prefer women did not wear it. The claim that to dress differently is to create division is so absurd that it is only given credence over the nikab because of already rampant Islamophobia. The Hassidic Jews of Stamford Hill, north London , dress in clothing modelled on the 18th century. Both men and women dress very differently from non-Hassidim. Sikh men dress distinctively. Punks dress differently. Goths dress differently. Is Straw really claiming that we must all dress the same - in the name of the war for democracy and freedom against terror? Is he telling Rastafarians that they should shave their locks?

3) The number of women in Britain actually wearing the nikab is a very small minority of Muslim women. It is a very small percentage of the total of Muslim women. There are broadly two categories of women who wear the nikab: some are from parts of the world such as Yemen where it is fairly common, others are younger women who have been brought up in Britain . Most women who wear the nikab say they choose to do so. Those who have taken to wearing it since 9/11 often say they do so to indicate resistance to the US-led war on terror and its attendant Islamophobia. There are, doubtless, some women who feel pressured to wear the nikab. But how does placing unwarranted pressure on all women who do help those who don't want to? Within two days of Straw's comments a woman wearing a veil was attacked in Liverpool by a man who ripped it off. Other women in Blackburn wearing the nikab say they have been accosted by men saying, "Jack has told you not to wear that." Muslim and anti-racist organisations report a significant increase in the number of attacks.

4) This is not at the level of the "Rivers of Blood" speech by Enoch Powell in April 1968. But there is a whiff of that atmosphere and it marks a step-change in the level of Islamophobia. The Daily Express ran the headline "Ban The Veil" on Saturday. Writers as respectable as Simon Jenkins said of Muslims, "Those who claim such hospitality owe some duty of respect to their hosts, or at the very least cannot complain if the hosts object." This language of "hosts" and ethnic minorities as temporary "guests" harks back to the racism of the 1970s.

5) There is a wider context than Straw's leadership ambitions. Crucially, the failure of the war on terror to achieve any of its objectives means that the US and British governments are increasingly turning on the Muslim communities in the west as a scapegoat for the chaos imperialism is creating across the globe. Last July, Blair refused to accept that Britain 's foreign policy had made us more likely to be the target of terrorism. He and the government are therefore forced to identify Muslims as in some way responsible. This basic scapegoating drive is going to continue. It is fuelled also by, for example, the manoeuvring of the European powers over EU enlargement. The German government has opposed Turkey joining the EU and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, has supported moves to include the definition of Europe as a Christian continent in the EU constitution. The far right has made significant advances in Belgium and Denmark . Both campaigns were characterised by Muslim bashing.

6) Straw, following Reid and Cameron, has boosted the confidence of hardened racists. It is partly in recognition of this (and also for their own internal-Labour factionalising) that Peter Hain, Ruth Kelly and John Prescott have distanced themselves from Straw. As well as making the basic argument of freedom of choice for women to wear what they want, it is vital that Respect points to the wider racist effect of Straw's intervention. In this way, it is possible to tap the basic anti-racist instincts of the considerable people who are confused by the arguments over the nikab or who are falling for spurious claims about liberating women or the psychology of non-verbal communication. It is equally important to demonstrate how the anti-Muslim scapegoating is an outgrowth of the war on terror. The number of people in Britain opposed to Bush and Blair's wars has never been higher.

7) Respect is holding a rally during Saturday's final session of national conference. Locally, Respect groups are encouraged to build for the national day of action against Islamophobia, called by the Stop the War Coalition and the British Muslim Initiative, in November and to hold meetings with an appropriate panel of speakers over this issue. While that section of "liberal opinion" that supported the war has been among the most virulent cheerleaders for Straw and Reid, there are many others, who are against the war, who either clearly oppose the attacks on Muslims or who can be convinced that the furore over the nikab is a cipher for a dangerous, racist assault on the notion of a multicultural Britain.