The Home Office minister, Hazel Blears, said that Muslim and minority groups should be asked if they wanted to be referred to by terms such as Asian-British, Pakistani-British or Indian-British, rather than simply as "Asians". She would be floating the idea at a series of meetings with Muslim leaders this summer, she said.
But a Downing Street spokeswoman emphasised yesterday that this was not something the Government was actively promoting, after the idea received a cool response from Muslim leaders.
"This is something that has been put to Hazel Blears in meetings. It is not something she suggested. It is not something that the Government is proposing or suggesting," the spokeswoman said.
In an interview with The Times, Ms Blears, who was appointed head of a government commission on integrating minorities, said that it might be useful to adhere to an American US-style identity system. "In America, they do seem to have the idea that you're an Italian-American or you're an Irish-American, and that's quite interesting," she said.
"I am going to talk to people and ask how does that feel? It is about your identity and I think it's really important.
"I think it's really important, if you want a society that is really welded together, there are certain things that unite us because you are British, but you can be a bit different too." Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, was irritated by Ms Blears' suggestion. "What of the second generations? Why should they be defined as other than British?" he asked.
"These forms of identity based on ethnic background have been tried in the past and have failed," Sir Iqbal said yesterday.
Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament, said: "Nobody cares for labels. We have to create a stakeholding society and an inclusive society."
Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Muslim Forum, said that the idea would be deeply divisive. "It would create a lower strata of British.
"It gives people labels and dilutes their citizenship compared to original, white British people. It is not helpful in creating the togetherness that they have been talking about," Mr Moghal said.
Inayat Bunglawala, senior spokesman from the Muslim Council of Britain said "it makes no sense" to re-categorise British citizens in this way and that it could only be reductive. Mr Bunglawala said he would be more inclined to support a faith-based label, such as "British Muslim".
How we want to be described
SARAH JOSEPH, editor of the Muslim magazine EMEL
"I think we should decide ourselves what to call ourselves. Are we trying to create grades of being British? I'm sure Hazel Blears has good intentions but the Government has been faced with a problem and it's grasping at straws. The issues we are facing are complicated and we can't spin ourselves out of the present dilemma or rebrand ourselves. We are not a margarine. Instead of rebranding ethnic minorities, the Government should be fostering a sense of belonging."
AYESHA HAZARIKA, award-winning comedian at the Edinburgh Festival
"I don't think anyone including Hazel is suggesting this idea is a simple solution to the complex issues about race today. But the idea is an interesting one. The term Asian includes a lot of different types of people. Just because race is a highly sensitive issue at present I don't think we should avoid these kinds of discussions. I feel I have a triple Scottish British and Asian identity. I feel I'm an Indo-Glaswegian Scot. People should be able to define themselves in whatever way they like."
SUMAN BHUCHAR, theatre promoter
"I'm very clear about my identity and I don't need a government minister to tell me who I should be or what I should call myself. South Asian theatre has tackled issues of identity for decades. In the early days, we thought about whether to define ourselves as British or Indian but in contemporary times, it's looking at belonging to two different cultures. This is part of a larger issue in which the state tries to put us in categories, whether it's for a quota, for political correctness or anything else. I don't approve of it and I don't think it's helpful."
NITIN SAWHNEY, musician
"I have a massive problem with people focusing on nationality. In the present climate where people's civil liberties are being undermined and people are being specifically targeted for their ethnicity and skin colour and religious beliefs, it's dangerous to be bringing these things into their profile. It breeds insecurity and paranoia. If you are going to focus on nationality then you should refer to everyone as British if that person is born here. Why is it necessary to specify an origin, especially in this climate?"
SHAMI CHAKRABARTI, director of Liberty
"I think Hazel Blears' heart is in the right place but the idea that you can rebrand people from above is so disconnected to how people are feeling. This is the whole problem: you have people feeling patronised and alienated and then a white minister comes along and says, 'Don't worry, I'm going to rebrand you and everything will be all right'. Perhaps she would like to teach us how to bake fairy cakes too. It would be humorous if it were not so sad. It is the dark comedy of enforced integration. You can't do it this way."
KEITH VAZ, MP for Leicester East
"I understand what Hazel is trying to do but the British Asian community know precisely who they are. We know who we are and we are comfortable in being able to identify ourselves without the need for external labels. What we should be doing rather than rebranding is doing more to positively encourage young people from the Asian community to become more involved in the mainstream. That means ministers like Hazel and others ought to appoint more Asians to positions of responsibility through quangos, for example."Reuse content