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Official's Muslim Veil Stance Divides U.K.

This story was written by CBS News' Charlie D'Agata.


It wasn't the type of thing you'd expect to hear from a leading politician, much less a typically-reserved British one.

"I respect women's rights to wear a veil," House of Commons leader Jack Straw said, "but I find it uncomfortable when I'm interviewing women who are wearing one."

In fact, Straw said, when Muslim women visit his office, "I now ask them if they wouldn't mind removing the veil so I can have a face-to-face conversation. In every case I have asked, that has happened."

Straw's comments in an Oct. 5 column in the Lancashire Telegraph newspaper have plunged Britain into a debate over Islamic integration.

Many Muslims argue the politician has no right to ask in the first place. Meanwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Straw, his former foreign secretary, for bringing up the issue. Blair told the BBC: "It's important these issues are raised and discussed, and I think it's perfectly sensible if you raise it in a measured and considered way, which he did.

"I think we can have these discussions without people becoming hysterical either way about it," Blair said.

Muslim reaction has fallen well short of "hysterical," but many say the British government is simply out of touch.

"'Take the veil off, that'll make everyone love each other.' What an ignorant thing to say," said Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

But after the London bombings and several serious terror threats involving Muslim suspects, British leaders say this is not the time for political correctness.

Recent weeks have seen a rise in tensions within the Muslim community.

Gangs of Muslim and non-Muslims have waged street battles in Windsor, west of London, at a dairy owned by a Muslim family.

And a few days ago it emerged that a British Muslim policeman was excused from guarding the Israeli Embassy during the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah because his wife was Lebanese, prompting debate over whether Muslims in the force were receiving preferential treatment.

In an effort to bridge the increasing divisions, the government's message is: integrate, don't separate.

And the veil represents, as Straw put it in his column, "a visible statement of separation and difference."

But for many of the 100,000 Muslim women who wear the veil in the United Kingdom, it's their religious right -- and a matter of modesty.

"Our beauty is for ourselves and for whom we wish to reveal it to rather than to everyone," said one young woman who spoke to CBS News.

Says designer Yasmin Safri: "a lot of people are actually wearing it now -- and they kind of feel quite protected."

Protected, and hidden away.

Which is what scares many British leaders, who see the veil as one more barrier between the British public and its increasingly closed Muslim community.

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