We see the hysterical results of Jack Straw's comments this morning. The Daily Express leads the charge with "BAN THE VEIL": "CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil."
Jack Straw has a right to raise the issue of the Niqab. (I have to admit, though, that the idea of him asking ladies to remove their Niqab, while they are sitting in front of him, is rather creepy.) It also seems that Straw has been misrepresented, because he emphasised that he asks ladies wearing the Niqab if they would mind removing it. That is importantly different from simply "asking them to remove it" which is how the BBC has reported him.
Jack Straw is in one of the government's deadest of dead end jobs, which doesn't give him many opportunities to...well...get out and have a life. I waded through Robin Cook's memoirs of his time as Leader of the House rather like a mouse wading through treacle. One the main things Cook wanted to achieve, an elected second chamber, was continually frustrated by Tony Blair.
So I suspect that part of Jack Straw's reason for speaking out on this issue, is that, otherwise, he would hardly get his name in the press.
He does seem to have thought very carefully about "going public" on this. He has sought the view of Muslims on it.
In a free country, it is right that this issue is discussed. However, I was very taken by the remarks on Today this morning by Nadia Ajibade, a young muslim woman who started wearing the veil when she was 19. Ms Ajibade explained that she wears the niqab because she wants to feel closer to God. She doesn't do it in order to make a statement or hide herself or make herself "separate" (she described many conversations she has with strangers while wearing the niqab in public. They ask questions like: "Is it hot in there?" or "Are you a Muslim?".)
Jack Straw says that the niqab is a "visible statement of separateness and difference".
The "difference" part of that comment is easy to dispose of. What is wrong with being "different"? Surely the whole spirit of Britishness is the encouragement, nay the celebration, of difference?
As for being a "statement of separateness", is a nun's dress a "statement of separateness"? Nuns dress as they do for religious reasons. They don't cover their face, so Jack Straw doesn't get worked up about them. But if we accept nun's outfits, priest's dog collars, turbans and other religious headwear (and indeed non-religious headwear such as hoods, crash helmets and sunglasses), surely we should accept the niqab, which is worn for religious reasons?
Freedom of religion is an important part of Britain, which we rightly celebrate. Wearing the niqab is part of that religious freedom. We should therefore celebrate the wearing of niqab. We should accept those who want to wear it, not envelop them in a climate of hysterical persecution.
I emphasise that I do not blame Straw for the hysterical reaction to his comments. He was right to raise the issue.