Image: Muslim women protest
Andrew Yates  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Muslim women protest outside the Bangor Street Community Center in Blackburn, northwest England, Oct. 14.
updated 10/22/2006 3:35:52 PM ET 2006-10-22T19:35:52

The heated debate over veils that cover the faces of some British Muslim women is growing ugly and could trigger riots, the head of Britain’s race relations watchdog warned on Sunday.

Britons are becoming increasingly polarized along racial and religious lines, and if they don’t talk respectfully about their differences, tensions could fuel unrest, Commission for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips wrote in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. television, he said he didn’t want Britain to suffer the kind of violence that exploded in the deprived suburbs of Paris a year ago, when disaffected young people, many from immigrant backgrounds, rioted for three weeks.

He warned there could also be a repeat of the rioting in several northern English towns in 2001 caused by racial tensions between white and mainly Muslim south Asian youths.

“Only this time the conflict would be much worse,” Phillips wrote in the Times.

Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said some violent attacks already have occurred against Muslims in the country. He said some women’s veils have been forcibly pulled off, mosques set on fire and Muslims beaten by gangs of men.

The debate over veils was set off earlier this month when former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils. A Muslim teaching assistant in northern England was then suspended from her job for refusing to remove a black veil that left only her eyes visible.

The issue touches on growing anxieties about Britain’s diversity and the alienation of young British Muslims like those who carried out suicide bombings on London’s transit system last year, killing themselves and 52 commuters.

Blair calls for talk of integration
Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the country needed to talk about how minority communities could better integrate into the wider society while maintaining their cultural distinctiveness. He called the veil “a mark of separation.”

Phillips said he thought Straw’s remarks had been polite and respectful, but he worried the debate had since grown ugly and rancorous. The commission he leads was created by law in 1976 to fight discrimination and encourage good race relations.

In the interview with BBC, he said “what should have been a proper conversation between all kinds of British people seems to have turned into a trial of one particular community, and that cannot be right.”

“We need to have this conversation but there are rules by which we have the conversation which don’t involve this kind of targeting and frankly bullying,” he said.

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