LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Salman Rushdie praised a British official on Tuesday for raising the difficult issue of whether Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils.
"It's important these issues are raised and discussed, and I think it's perfectly sensible if you raise it in a measured and considered way, which he did," Blair said of Straw during an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. television outside his office. "I think we can have these discussions without people becoming hysterical either way about it."
Rushdie, whose book "The Satanic Verses," once led to death threats against him by Islamic clerics, told BBC radio that Straw "was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils suck, which they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women."
Straw said in a newspaper column published Thursday that he believes the veils favored by some Muslim women inhibit communication and are a sign of division in society. At his constituency office, Straw said he asks that veiled women reveal their faces, adding that the women have always complied, and a female assistant is always present.
On Friday, British media quoted Straw as going further, saying that he would prefer that Muslim women not wear veils at all. "I just find it uncomfortable if I'm trying to have a conversation with someone whose face I can't see," Straw told the BBC.
Many Muslims in Straw's parliamentary district of Blackburn, in northwestern England, reacted with outrage.
The uproar also left many questioning whether Britain's multicultural ideals can withstand the strains of a cultural divide that is increasingly tormenting much of Europe.
The difficulty of the issue was obvious during the Blair interview when he was asked if he would prefer a Muslim woman he met took off her veil.
"I think in the end, it's a matter of them choosing what they want to do," Blair said.
"But I think the reason why Jack raised this is because these are issues that people do feel quite strongly about and they are trying to say how do we make sense of a different type of society in which we live, how do we make sure people integrate more, how do we make sure that people aren't sort of wanting to separate themselves out from the mainstream of society."
Blair said, "It's a difficult and tricky debate to enter into, as we can see over the past few days," but he praised the way Straw had handled it.
For decades, Britain has prided itself on multiculturalism. Workplaces have prayer rooms for Muslim employees to fulfill their daily prayer obligations, Sikh rights to wear turbans are enshrined in law, and Indian curry is practically a national dish.
Rushdie, who was forced into hiding for 10 years after Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini served a fatwa on him over his book's alleged criticism of the Prophet Muhammad, said the veil can be used to suppress women.
"Speaking as somebody with three sisters and a very largely female Muslim family, there's not a single woman I know in my family or in my friends who would have accepted wearing a veil," he said.
"I think the battle against the veil has been a long and continuing battle against the limitation of women, so in that sense I'm completely on (Straw's) side."