Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that Islamic head scarves are a sign of separation and that Britain’s Muslims should be encouraged to integrate with society to improve the quality of their lives.
Blair’s comments represented a strong stand in an emotional debate over assimilation, an issue that gained attention two weeks ago when former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils.
His comments set off an angry back-and-forth about a garment seen by some as a symbol of reluctance to fully integrate into British life. The issue of alienation was brought painfully to Britons’ attention last year, when four young British Muslims carried out suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters on London’s transit network.
Blair said Tuesday that the veil was “a mark of separation, and that’s why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable.”
“People want to know that the Muslim community in particular, but actually all minority communities, have got the balance right between integration and multiculturalism,” he said.
Blair said evidence showed that “when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well. There is a reason why minority communities that have integrated well then end up doing better, achieving more, attaining more.”
Blair wasn’t the only European leader to weigh in on the veil Tuesday; Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said it was a matter of common sense that people show their faces in public.
“You can’t cover your face. If you have a veil, fine, but you must be seen,” Prodi told Reuters news agency. “This is common sense, I think. It is important for our society. It is not how you dress but if you are hidden or not.”
Neither Britain nor Italy restricts wearing the veil, but Italy has in the past had laws against covering the face in public as an anti-terrorism measure, and some politicians have called for this rule to be enforced against Muslim women.
In France, a law bans “conspicuous symbols” of faith from schools, including Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.