Ministers must stop fanning the flames of racism

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, Friday 6 October 2007

Jack Straw's statement yesterday that Muslim women should not cover their faces marks a new low in the government's approach to community and race relations. It comes only a couple of weeks after John Reid's offensive instruction to Muslim parents to watch out for "extremism" in their kids.

Straw and Reid are the creator and current head of New Labour's Home Office - a department that on Reid's own admission isn't fit for purpose. Now they seem determined to divert blame from themselves by locking horns in a Muslim-bashing competition.

Straw's remarks are a "personal view" according to Tony Blair's spokesman. But Jack Straw is Leader of the House of Commons, a former Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and one of the architects of New Labour.

Many of us have long suspected that the government has been trying to demoralise and disenfranchise Britain's minority communities through a calculated policy of deniable racism. Ministers have repeatedly nourished the far-right with the oxygen of prejudice while insisting on their own-antiracist credentials. But the veneer of ministerial respectability is now looking almost as threadbare as the grey suits that BMP members like to wear over their racist tatoos.

It�s time to say "enough". We call on people of every race and religion in Reid and Straw's constituencies to come together and tell these two dinosaurs to stop promoting racism.

Straw says that watching facial expressions is important for contact between people. In the culture that Straw was brought up in that is true; in other cultures it is not. Tony Blair likes to look people in the eye when he is lying to them; others prefer to let their words speak for themselves.

Muslims hold a range of views on the question of womens' dress. But this doesn't excuse Straw using a position of power to pressure Muslim women into behaviour that they may feel to be inappropriate. And it certainly doesn't excuse him encouraging prejudice amongst non-Muslims.

The results of this sort of self-conscious boorishness are easy to see. Last night's Channel 4 News linked Jack Straw's remarks to a report on a petrol-bomb attack on a dairy in Windsor, apparently in response to plans by the owner of the business to set up an Islamic Centre nearby. Presenter Alex Thomson summed up the report by saying:

"The fact that a small industrial plant in a largely prosperous town in the Home Counties can ignite such tension tells us much about Islam in Britain today."

A non-Muslim viewer contacted the programme afterwards to suggest that Mr Thomson could have said, more objectively, that the incident tells us much about the racism, xenophobia and cultural intolerance that exists in Britain today.

Many people of all communities will no doubt have reacted in the same way to Mr Thomson's comments. Let's all demand that those who speak for us from the privilege of political and media platforms stop using fake populism to fuel community tension.