updated 10/18/2006 6:08:23 AM ET 2006-10-18T10:08:23

A government minister joined an increasingly bitter debate over the rights of Muslim women to wear face veils in Britain, telling a Sunday newspaper that a teaching assistant should be fired for insisting on wearing one in school.

The opposition Conservatives also weighed in on the contentious issue, with one of the party's top officials accusing Muslim leaders of encouraging a "voluntary apartheid" that could help spawn homegrown terrorism.

The public debate over Islamic integration in Britain began earlier this month, when Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary who now serves as leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils. The discussion already has involved widely publicized comments from Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Salman Rushdie.

On Sunday, Nazir Ahmed, the House of Lords' first Muslim legislator, joined the fray by criticizing British politicians and the media for "demonizing" the country's Muslim community.

The Sunday Mirror newspaper quoted Phil Woolas, the government's Race and Faith minister, as demanding Muslim teaching assistant Aishah Azmi be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work.

"She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job," Woolas said.

Steadfast over wearing veil
Azmi has refused to remove her black veil, which leaves only her eyes visible, in front of male colleagues. She was suspended from her job at the Headfield Church of England School in West Yorkshire, a northern area of England with a large Muslim population. Junior schools such as Headfield generally teach students at the ages of 4 to 11.

Azmi, 24, who has two children, has insisted that she had been willing to remove her veil in class, as long as there were no adult males present. She has taken her case to an industrial tribunal that is expected to make its decision in the next few weeks.

"She is denying the right of children to a full education by insisting that she wears the veil. If she is saying that she won't work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in school," Woolas was quoted as saying.

"There are limits in a liberal democracy. There are boundaries in a democracy and this is one of them. It's a boundary we can't cross," he said.

In a front-page article in The Sunday Telegraph, David Davis, a top Conservative Party official, supported Straw for starting the debate.

"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," Davis said.

"At the starkest level, we may be creating conditions in the recesses of our society that foster homegrown terrorism," he was quoted as saying.

Blair also has praised Straw for raising the issue "in a measured and considered way," and urged Britons to engage in such discussions without "becoming hysterical."

Salman Rushdie weighs in
Rushdie, whose book "The Satanic Verses" once led to death threats against him by Islamic clerics, said last week that Straw "was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils suck, which they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women."

In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Sunday, Lord Ahmed, a moderate lawmaker of the governing Labour Party, said: "Let's be honest, there are people in our community who call themselves Muslims who have been threatening our national security. It is very unfortunate.

"But the problem is that the politicians and some people in the media have used this for demonization of entire communities, which has become a very fashionable thing today."

He said Muslims are trying hard to deal with extremism and to engage in the veil debate.

"But the problem is we constantly have this interference from people who are saying to us: `Spy on your children. Don't do this. Don't do that'. Well, you know, if there was another way of doing things within the community it would be much better than doing these sort of quick, headline-grabbing activities that the government keeps doing."

Another case, another religion
To complicate the situation further, an unrelated case involving a dispute over another religious item also has been making news in Britain.

A British Airways check-in worker, Nadia Eweida, has claimed that she was effectively forced to take unpaid leave after refusing to remove or conceal a small crucifix necklace.

The airline has said items such as turbans, hijabs and bangles can be openly worn "as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms," but that smaller items such as crucifixes on necklaces should be concealed.

Christian groups have branded British Airways' ruling as "extremely offensive," and Eweida, 55, has said she plans to sue her employer for religious discrimination.

On Sunday, British Cabinet minister Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the BBC he "didn't understand" the airline's decision. "Frankly, I think the British Airways order for her not to wear a cross was loopy," Hain said.

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