Beyond the veil
But although no-one debates the underlying social issues that appear to motivate Straw's comments, the question remains whether he will spark the sort of change he seems to desire as a result of it: specifically, a closer and less suspicious relationship between his Muslim and non-Muslim constituents. I suspect the answer is that he will not.
First, by picking a relatively superficial issue and tackling it without reference to the wider social and religious contexts in which it plays out, Straw risks contributing to the debate in a way that perpetuates some of the worst misjudgements about the Muslim community, rather than helping to break them down. Creating bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim groups is about creating a sense of security for members of communities wtihin their own setting whilst also asking them to reach out to others who are different to themselves.
Insecurity breeds the insularity about which Jack Straw is rightly concerned. Breaking down the barriers than lie between his Muslim and non-Muslim constituents is about tackling the poverty, underachievement and exclusion that is rife within their locality. This will demand a much longer-term approach to tackling the structural unfairness that affects much of the Muslim population in the north-west. In Change Within (a Demos report produced in partnership with Barrow Cadbury Trust), we argue that community organisations hold the key to catalysing this sort of change within black and minority ethnic communities. Supporting the groups to which communities themselves feel a sense of allegiance will give government the best chance of building an enduring instrastructure within minority communities that can act as a starting point for lasting change.