A leading Muslim scholar has said the debate on women wearing veils highlights a growing "global polarisation" between the West and the Islamic world.
Tariq Ramadan, a visiting professor at Oxford University told an interfaith conference in London yesterday that the debate sparked by Jack Straw, who said the veil hampered integration, was part of a global phenomenon in which a "them versus us" attitude was being fostered between Muslims and non-Muslims.
"The atmosphere has deteriorated in the last year or so," Professor Ramadan said. "It's not only a British reality, but European and American.
"To nurture this polarisation is the easiest way for politicians when we don't have social policy. The most dangerous thing is the normalisation of this discourse."
The Venerable Michael Fox, Archdeacon of West Ham, echoed Professor Ramadan's sentiments, and said he was worried by the rise of the far-right in Barking and Dagenham.
"There has been a normalisation of far-right discourse in the last couple of years," he said. "I grew up in Barking and Dagenham, which now has 12 BNP councillors, and I have listened to people's concerns which include all sorts of fantasies. At the heart of it is the question, 'how do I live with difference?'."
Professor Ramadan said British Muslims should not adopt a "victim mentality" or react "emotionally" to controversial statements made by politicians.
Earlier this month, Mr Straw, the Commons leader, triggered a storm when he said he asked women to remove the veil when he met them because it was a "visible statement of separation". Tony Blair was among a number of politicians who supported him.
This week, Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said the discussion had "deteriorated" since it was first raised and he feared that the Muslim community was being unfairly targeted.
Professor Ramadan, who was speaking alongside an expert panel in east London yesterday, including Sheikh Abu Sayeed, chair of the Islamic Sharia Council of Britain, Tahir Alam, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Archdeacon, stressed that a mature debate from inside the community was welcomed by him, and that, "we should say thank you for the question". He said: "We know we have a problem in the Muslim community. We better start discussion from within."
He also believed that the wearing of the niqab was not compulsory for Muslim women but only meant historically for the wives of the Prophet Mohamed.
The United by Faith conference, hosted by Da'watul Islam UK & Eire, in Tower Hamlets, was attended by community and political leaders as well as senior Metropolitan Police officers. It was the first face-to-face meeting between Islamic scholars and the public in which direct questions about the veil could be posed to the experts.