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LONDON, England -- A senior British Cabinet minister has sparked fury by saying that Muslim women who wore full veils made community relations more difficult.
Jack Straw wrote in a newspaper that a veil was "a visible statement of separation and difference" and that he was more comfortable dealing with female visitors to his local political office with their faces uncovered.
But Muslim leaders in Straw's Blackburn constituency in northwest England said many Muslim women would find his comments "offensive and disturbing."
Straw, leader of the House of Commons and the former foreign secretary, said he was concerned that "wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult."
Asked on Friday if he would like veils to be discarded altogether, Straw said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."
"You cannot force people where they live, that's a matter of choice and economics, but you can be concerned about the implications of separateness and I am," he told the BBC.
Straw originally wrote in the Lancashire Telegraph that he asked women to remove their veils in his constituency office. "I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face to face' who I could not see," he wrote. No one had refused his request, he said.
Straw pointed out that he defended Muslims' rights to wear head scarves and that wearing a full veil "breaks no laws."
But opposition politicians rounded on his comments. Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin said it would be a "dangerous doctrine" to instruct people how to dress, while Liberal Democrat chairman Simon Hughes described the remarks as "insensitive and surprising."
And Straw faced criticism in his own constituency. The Lancashire Council of Mosques said the Commons leader had "misunderstood" the issue and it was "deeply concerned" by his "very insensitive and unwise" statement.
"For such a seasoned and astute politician to make such a comment that has shocked his Muslim constituents seems ill judged and misconceived," a spokesman told the Press Association.
"Many of these women find Mr. Straw's comments both offensive and disturbing."
The radical Hizb ut-Tahrir organization said the Muslim community "does not need lessons in dress from Jack Straw."
"He has once again shown that for Cabinet ministers it is open season on Muslims and Islam," said spokesperson Nazreen Nawaz.
However, Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he understood Straw's views. "This (the veil) does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this," he said.
And some of Straw's colleagues backed Straw, with chairperson Hazel Blears saying his request to constituents was "perfectly proper." Downing Street said the Commons leader was expressing a private opinion.
"In a world rampant with sexuality and nakedness, it is refreshing to see a veiled woman with a strong statement about her body: judge her by the contents of her mind, not her body. It is also sign of obedience to the Almighty Allah."
But another reader, Jackie Lewis, from Harrow in the United Kingdom, said: "I have to agree with Jack Straw's comments on the Islamic veil.
"I am personally offended to see any woman covered up in the 21st century. I often see them wearing the full burka in Harrow, yet they are always accompanied by men in baseball caps, jeans and trainers. As with a lot of faiths there are always double standards between the sexes."