Straw blamed for 'racist' backlash

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Jack Straw was last night looking increasingly isolated over his disclosure that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear the veil, as Cabinet colleagues publicly distanced themselves from his remarks.

Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, said she saw wearing the veil as a "personal choice" and would not ask a woman who sought her advice to remove it.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who is expected to run against Mr Straw to become deputy leader of the Labour Party, said that women should be entitled to wear the veil if they chose.

"I believe that women, like everybody else, are entitled to dress as they choose to dress," he said on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions.

Mr Straw's condemnation of the veil worn by some Muslim women as a " statement of separation and difference" has caused intense controversy since he raised the issue on Thursday. The Leader of the House of Commons disclosed that he asked Muslim women attending his advice surgery to remove their veils.

But yesterday he was accused by a fellow Labour MP of unleashing a racist backlash against Britain's Muslims.

The first sign of a racist reaction came in Liverpool on Friday when a man snatched a veil from a 49-year-old woman's face after shouting racist abuse. Yesterday, protesters took to the streets of Mr Straw's Blackburn constituency to vent their anger.

The protest was told that a young Muslim girl wearing a veil in Blackburn was confronted by three youths on Friday night. One threw a newspaper at her and shouted: "Jack has told you to take off your veil."

Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, said the country's Muslims were braced for further attacks in a deteriorating climate of fear and suspicion.

"I think Jack may have unleashed forces more negative and corrosive than he anticipated," said Mr Malik. "I think there is a growing feeling among Muslims in Britain that something has got to give. They are genuinely fearful of attack."

The Race Relations minister Phil Woolas claimed Mr Straw's comments had provoked a backlash. The Oldham MP said that Muslims in his constituency had received phone calls from relatives asking if they were safe in Britain, following the extensive news coverage of the issue.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission called for unity in Britain, but the chairman Massoud Shadjareh, said Mr Straw should not let clothing " become a hurdle for discussion".