Leading article: Britain behind the veil

Imagine a Britain in which it was illegal to wear a long beard, or ringlets; to wear a skull cap, turban or headscarf; to wear a crucifix around the neck or a tilaka mark on the forehead. Fortunately, it is unthinkable. There can be no question in a free society of forcing people not to wear something of religious significance to the wearer. That applies to the veil as well. Of course, the veil is different from other outward signs of religious observance in that it conceals the face. That has practical implications for public administration when identity is an issue - but problems of passports and driving tests have been solved by that most admirable trait of the British tradition, tolerant pragmatism. Face-covering has other implications, too, however, which were raised last week by Jack Straw, the former home secretary, former foreign secretary and current MP whose local electorate is one-quarter Muslim.

Mr Straw made an important point. The veil is more than a symbol; it is a "statement of separation", even of - a word he did not use but could have - rejection. It has an effect on others in public places and in the interactions of strangers (as in Mr Straw's constituency surgery) that is quite different from other religious-cultural identifiers. It is possible that not all women who wear the niqab are aware of the effect that it has, particularly on other women.

But Mr Straw's sense of timing is peculiar. When tensions between Muslims and a largely secular majority are high, opening a debate about the veil is hardly a neutral choice. The worst of his intervention is that it has incited intolerance, from the attacker who tore the veil off a woman in Liverpool to the more genteel variety in the press. Yesterday the Daily Express front page read: "Ban the Veil", reporting a phone-in poll of its own readers - and even that asked only if they thought Mr Straw was right to raise questions. Mr Straw must have known that his words - however carefully chosen - would have this effect. That takes nothing from his right to say what he said. As with the Danish cartoons controversy, on which Mr Straw did not take such a principled stand in defence of free speech, the knowledge that intolerant people might react badly is not an argument for censorship. But it might have been better, as Joan Smith says on page 16, to have focused on the wider issue of women's equality.

This is not an issue that is particular to Islam, although the niqab and burqa are extreme manifestations of it. The regulation of female modesty has persisted in some strands of Christianity and Judaism, for example in the habits of Roman Catholic nuns and the wigs worn by some Orthodox Jewish women. There will always be tensions between religion and the values of liberalism.

Debate, discussion and the free exchange of views are the way forward, with one proviso: that people such as Mr Straw are in a privileged position, able to express a view that will command front-page headlines the next day. What is vitally important is that the views of women who wear the veil, and of Muslims generally, should be heard too. If there is a flaw in the consensus that there should be a debate, it is that the Muslim voices which are heard through the media tend to be those of extreme views, and they tend to be those of men. Domestically and globally, the voices of moderation must not be drowned out.