Leading article: Dress sense

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The Independent Online

How long ago it seems that the British were observing the disputes in France over the wearing of veils in schools with a certain detachment, and even smugness.

Convinced, with what now seems naivety, that our traditions of pragmatic accommodation would succeed where France's more ideological approach had not, the belief prevailed that common sense would see us through the Scylla and Charybdis of intolerant secularism and intolerant Islam. Perhaps it will, though if we do reach calmer waters it will have been in spite of, rather than because of, the interventions of some government ministers. Every week brings a new, often clumsy, contribution from a minister in what looks like an escalating controversy on Islam's place in Britain in general, and Islamic dress in particular.

Recently, we had Jack Straw on whether women attending his surgeries should wear veils. Now we have Peter Hain on whether a British Airways employee should be allowed to wear a cross, and Phil Woolas, Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion, entering the dispute over a teacher suspended from a Church of England school in West Yorkshire over her veil. Even before an unemployment tribunal has ruled on the case, Mr Woolas declared he believes the teacher should be sacked.

There is a distinct danger that almost every public figure is starting to feel duty bound, for the wrong reasons, to make broad pronouncements on Islam, whether or not these interventions merely raise the temperature of an already overheated debate.

It is worth reminding ourselves that talk of religious fascism, and of the clashes of civilisations and cultures, is the favourite discourse, not merely of the far right in Europe, but of al-Qa'ida. In other words, when we casually pour a little petrol on the complex and delicate issue of religious dress in a free society, we simply make it more difficult to defuse an air almost of hysteria from enveloping what ought to remain a rational debate. Turning to the teacher in West Yorkshire, the only real issue is whether her headdress interfered with her ability to communicate with her class. That is a matter for the tribunal, not government ministers using it as a springboard to score populist points.

Some, of course, will say this more unguarded than usual discussion is perfectly healthy, a welcome change indeed from an enforced, politically correct silence. Just possibly that was once the case. But we could all do with a rest from these rather calculated contributions from ministers in particular, which seem designed mainly to raise their own political prospects rather than enlighten anyone about Islam, secularism, democracy and the rest.