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Saturday, October 07, 2006

'People are angry. This attacks the identity of Muslims'

By Nigel Bunyan
(Filed: 07/10/2006)

The telephone in Ibrahim Master's home, in one of the predominantly Muslim quarters of Blackburn, rang just before 1pm. It was Jack Straw.

He wasn't ringing to take back his words on the veil, which have so enraged many constituents. He was trying to rebuild some of the bridges his Islamic allies believe he has left badly damaged. The conversation lasted five minutes and ended with both men assuring each other that their 15-year friendship would survive.

Whether Mr Straw can hold his Lancashire constituency at the general election remains to be seen. Many in Blackburn yesterday were predicting that he would face a rough ride. Last year the debacle of the Iraq war dented his majority, cutting it to 8,009.

Mr Master, 48, a former chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said he felt personally let down by his long-time political ally. It was he, after all, who helped rally the sizeable Muslim vote that assured Mr Straw's return as Blackburn MP last year.

For so moderate a Muslim to be upset with the Leader of the House of Commons is clearly an embarrassment. He wrote to Mr Straw more than three years ago, expressing concern that at one of his surgeries the MP had "quite explicitly advocated that Muslim females should not adopt the veil".

On that occasion a potential conflict was defused. This time the MP rang Mr Master only the night before the article appeared in his local newspaper, assuring him of its "sober" tone.

Mr Master sees the MP's comments as offensive and deeply unhelpful. "People are angry because they see it as an attack on the very identity of Muslims. We have been in the spotlight since 9/11 and Jack Straw's remarks will make things worse.

"He has said what he's said with the best intentions, but I think it is going to have the opposite effect. For a Muslim woman to keep her face covered from males outside her family is a fundamental requirement of Islam. We feel so badly let down."

For all the condemnation being heaped on Mr Straw by Muslims, his assertion that the veil is "a visible statement of separation and difference" held resonance on the nearby streets.

Time and time again women in veils were approached in the hope that they would give their view on the issue. Most scurried away in silence. One paused long enough to say she would ring her husband to ask his permission.

He told her: "No. Walk away from them." She did so, telling the reporter: "I shouldn't even be looking at you. I'm not supposed to look at other men."

Mr Master was similarly unable to help. "The women who wear the veil are very shy," he said. "Without it they would go out even less than they do."

Staff at Radio Ramadan said that Mr Straw had not a single supporter among a steady stream of callers. One said Mr Straw had asked her to unveil. She had refused, but "from then on the meeting became uncomfortable".


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