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Behind the Veil Debate

The British debate over full-face veils worn by some Muslim women raises a bigger issue: How well are Muslims assimilating in Great Britain and the rest of Europe?

By Alan Cowell in London

Last month, Aishah Azmi, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at a school in northern England, was suspended from work for refusing to remove the full-face veil that she wears. The school said that Azmi's students, most of whom are not native English-speakers, were having trouble understanding her without being able to see her face and mouth.

Azmi said that Islam requires her to wear the veil over her face when teaching with male colleagues. "Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens," she said.

Her suspension came just as Great Britain began a loud public debate about full-face veils—and what they say about Muslims' willingness to adapt to British culture, as well as Britain's readiness to fully accept its 1.6 million Muslims.

Earlier in the month, Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons, criticized the full veil and asked women to remove them when talking to him in his district office in northwestern England. The veil, he wrote in a local newspaper, is "such a visible statement of separation and of difference" as to jeopardize British social harmony.

Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed Straw's comments, calling the full-face veil a "mark of separation" that "makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable." And a spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party said that some British Muslims, who make up almost 3 percent of the country's population, had set themselves on a course of "voluntary apartheid," leading parallel lives outside the mainstream of British society.

For 40 years, Britain has nurtured a policy of multiculturalism, celebrating ethnic diversity and its symbols. That policy evolved in the 1960s, when Muslim immigrants, largely from Pakistan, began arriving to take menial jobs.

Today, Britons are confronted with the sometimes alienated, even hostile, descendants of that first generation. Heightening concerns about the threat Britain faces from "home-grown" terrorism is the fact that three of the four known perpetrators of last year's London transit bombings, which killed 52 people and injured 800, were young Muslims who had been born and raised in the United Kingdom.

The Real Debate: Assimilation

The bombings, and now the debate over veils, have placed additional pressures on British Muslims, who have complained about discrimination for years.

The bigger debate, then, is about more than veils; it's about the extent to which Muslims have (or haven't) assimilated into British society, and what to do about it. Only 22 percent of Britons in a recent opinion poll said they thought Muslims had done enough to integrate, with 57 percent saying Muslims should do more to fit in.

"No one wants to say that people don't have the right to [wear a veil]," Blair said. "But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society....People want to know that the Muslim community in particular, but actually all minority communities, have got the balance right between integration and multiculturalism."

Similar debates have taken place in other European countries with significant Muslim minorities. In 2004, France banned Islamic head-scarves and other religious symbols from public schools. In Turkey, a Muslim country with a secular government that wants to join the European Union, the head-scarf has become a symbol of the strain between Islam and secularism. The question of the veil has also divided public opinion in the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, and Germany.

The full-face veil is designed to shield a Muslim woman from the view of men outside her immediate family. But the niqab, as it is called in Arabic, is worn by a minority of Muslim women. Much more common is the head-scarf (hijab in Arabic), which covers a woman's hair but allows her face to be seen. Some Muslim women, particularly in Western countries, wear no head coverings at all.

The U.S. Experience

Islamic dress has been less of an issue in the United States, where Muslim communities tend to be more assimilated than in Europe. (That might be because European countries are, on the whole, more homogeneous than the U.S. and seem to have had a harder time accommodating newcomers from different cultures.) Even so, similar issues have come up in the U.S. In 2003, a judge ruled that a Muslim woman in Florida did not have the right to cover her face with a veil for her driver's license photo.

In Britain, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim columnist for The Independent newspaper, sees some middle ground.

"What any of us does in our own lives is a private matter, a precious and inalienable right," she wrote. "But once we enter the job market or national and local authority domains, or tread into places where there is interaction with different citizens, privacy and individual choice become contested—quite rightly, for there is such a thing as British society."