There are some issues that are so explosive they are only capable of being resolved if they are handled coolly and analytically. These are the unexploded bombs of modern politics and 10 days ago Jack Straw detonated one of them with his comments on the use of the veil by Muslim women.
The shock waves have reverberated around Britain, loudest in the Muslim communities. Which is not to say Jack Straw was wrong. He was not. His comments were perfectly proper and he highlighted an issue that is both important and difficult: the question of the very unity of our nation.
But first let us deal with what he did not say, but which appears to have been attributed to him. He did not say that Government or Parliament should take action to prevent the wearing of the veil. Indeed, like me, he would vote against any such law that was put before the House.
Nevertheless we must look beyond the symbolism — beyond the veil, as it were — to understand why what Mr Straw said struck such a chord in the population at large, and received support from the vast majority, whether black, white, Asian, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or, in many cases, Muslim.
What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether, in Britain, we are developing a divided society. Whether we are creating a series of closed societies within our open society. Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid.
While Jack Straw's comments may have catalysed this discussion, the actual question of the small minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab is not really the issue at all. It is both unimportant and intrinsically personal, not a matter for the state. What is important is the greater issue of social division. At the starkest level, we may be creating conditions in the recesses of our society that foster home-grown terrorism. The vast majority of British Muslims lead lives that are practically identical to the lives of everyone else living, working and playing in the same places. But we may be allowing the radicalisation of a few young Muslims.
At its very least, there is a growing feeling that the Muslim community is excessively sensitive to criticism, unwilling to engage in substantive debate. Much worse is the feeling of some Muslim leaders that as a community they should be protected from criticism, argument, parody, satire and all the other challenges that happen in a society that has free speech as its highest value.
The Cantle Report into the 2001 riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham talked about communities living "parallel lives". These are places where people from different ethnic origins never meet, never talk, never go into each others' homes. It is by daily contact that we overcome our differences. Habitual contact enables us to fight the underlying problems of poverty, bad housing and lack of opportunity, which blight too many of our cities.
The Government's attitude to all this has been confused, confusing and counterproductive. Take the Danish cartoons that sparked outrage in the Muslim world. Several months passed between their publication and the backlash. It was not a spontaneous reaction and appeared to have been coordinated by extreme elements. The demonstrations in Britain appeared to incite violence or even murder of "infidels".
For two days Government ministers dithered over whether anything should be done. It was only after we called for prosecutions that Number 10 got a grip and said that the law would be upheld.
We witnessed similar dithering by the authorities on the prosecution of imams who foment hate and incite violence, most obviously the case of Abu Hamza. It took years before they were eventually embarrassed into bringing a case — which concluded with his conviction on 11 counts!
The Government even tried to pass a religious hatred law that would have, in its original form, imposed the biggest restriction on free speech in peacetime in this country. Fortunately, a coalition of Opposition parties and public celebrities faced down the Government into producing a neutered, harmless version of this Bill.
In some ways the Government has just been downright careless. In the aftermath of 7/7 there was a rash of initiatives and calls for action. Not all were wise. But very little actually happened. As a result, many Muslim leaders feel they have been poorly treated.
So the issues are very real. Are we going to find the compromises to preserve the freedoms, the tolerance, the give-and-take, that characterise the most open, vital and creative society in history? Or are we going to allow the splintering of loyalties, the division of communities, that will corrode the foundations of that society?
It will take compromises, but it will also take a determined signal about what we as a nation will and will not accept. It will require an understanding about what we mean by mutual respect and tolerance. Essentially, it is straightforward. I respect your religion, you respect mine, and we all respect our laws. That means that we respect the universality of our laws, with no special treatment for any one group.
If there were a legitimate criticism of Jack Straw's comments, it might be that, as an experienced politician, he should have foreseen the heated nature of the debate he was about to start. Well, maybe. Defusing unexploded bombs is dangerous. Sometimes the best way to avoid a big explosion is to have a smaller one. That is what Mr Straw has done.
There are no doubt risks whichever way this kind of subject is handled. However, the greater risk for our society is that legitimate discussion is being closed down by knee-jerk reactions to questions which, however insensitively they may be expressed, contain real issues that merit public debate. Ironically, such a debate would offer an opportunity for all sides to better appreciate – whether or not they agree – the range of opinion expressed. As John Stuart Mill said: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."
What we should do, now, is to ensure that the debate moves on to territory that allows all British citizens to take full part in a society that has delivered, through its freedoms, one of the greatest nations on earth. And make sure it continues to be just that, for everyone.
David Davis is the shadow home secretary.
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