Muslims face 'voluntary apartheid', warns Davis

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Muslim leaders were accused of risking "voluntary apartheid" and the creation of perfect conditions for "home-grown terrorism", in an outspoken attack by a senior Conservative last night.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, warned that "closed societies" were being created in the UK, and that religious divides threatened to "corrode" fundamental values such as freedom of speech.

"At its very least, there is a growing feeling that the Muslim community is excessively sensitive to criticism, unwilling to engage in substantive debate," he told The Sunday Telegraph.

"Much worse, is the feeling of some Muslim leaders that as a community they should be protected from criticism, argument, parody, satire and all the other challenges that happen in a society that has free speech as its highest value."

His comments came as a government minister called for the sacking of a Muslim teaching assistant who refused to remove her veil, and Britain's biggest airline faced boycott threats for preventing the wearing of a Christian cross. British Airways is being accused of double standards because a check-in worker was unable to have her cross on show, while it allowed turbans, hijabs and bangles "as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms".

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said Christians should not "sit back and take this", and called on those who normally use BA to look for an alternative unless its "crazy" policy was reversed.

Nadia Eweida, 55, claims she was effectively "forced" to take unpaid leave after refusing to remove or conceal her cross. She plans to sue the airline for religious discrimination. BA emphasised Ms Eweida had not been suspended and that the matter was under investigation.

Meanwhile, Phil Woolas, Communities and Local Government minister, whose brief includes race relations, said that teaching assistant Aishah Azmi had put herself in a position where she could not "do her job" at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. The suspended 24-year-old was "denying the right of children to a full education", and her refusal to work unveiled with men amounted to "sexual discrimination". "She should be sacked," he told the Sunday Mirror. Ms Azmi admitted she had not worn a veil at her job interview.

Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, said he believed most people wanted to see women give up the veils. But he criticised the stance taken by Commons Leader Jack Straw, who sparked the row by sayinghe asked female Muslim constituents to remove their veils in meetings.

Mr Livingstone said Mr Straw's approach infringed women's rights. Change must come over the "long term" from within the Muslim community, rather than through actions of "old white male politicians", he said.

His comments came as Mr Straw faced demonstrations outside his constituency surgeries in Blackburn.