LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday that Islamic head scarves are a sign of separation and Britain's Muslims should be encouraged to integrate with mainstream society in order to improve the quality of their lives.
Blair's comments represented a strong stand in an emotional debate that has raised broad questions about Muslim communities' ties with the rest of Britain.
The issue gained attention two weeks ago when former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils. A Muslim teaching assistant in northern England was then suspended from her job for refusing to remove a black veil that left only her eyes visible.
The incidents have set off an angry back-and-forth about a garment seen as a symbol of some Muslims' reluctance to fully integrate into British life. The issue of alienation was brought painfully to Britons' attention last year, when four young British Muslims carried out suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters on London's transit network.
Blair said Tuesday that the veil "is a mark of separation, and that's why it makes other people from outside the community feel uncomfortable."
"People want to know that the Muslim community in particular but actually all minority communities have got the balance right between integration and multiculturalism," he said.
Blair said evidence shows that "when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well. There is a reason why minority communities that have integrated well then end up doing better, achieving more, attaining more."
He defended the local education authority's handling of the case involving the teaching assistant, saying it had the right to decide whether the veil interfered with Aishah Azmi's ability to carry out her work.
He didn't say, however, whether he specifically supported Azmi's suspension. She has taken her case to an industrial tribunal, a court that handles cases on employment law, which will make a decision in the next few weeks.
The prime minister also angrily rejected suggestions that British foreign policy — particularly the country's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — has helped radicalize some young Muslims.
"It's absurd," he said, adding that opposition to the conflicts does not justify terrorism.
"If (radicals) are going to use that as an excuse to cause further extremism or violence, that is a reflection on them, it's not a reflection on the work we are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan," he said.
Britain's army chief set off a firestorm last week by telling a newspaper that British troops should leave Iraq soon because they were provoking violence rather than preventing it.
Blair repeated his contention that Gen. Richard Dannatt's comments were in accord with government policy because he was not suggesting that British forces leave before Iraqi troops were ready to take over their security duties.
Blair vehemently defended Britain's deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying both missions were important "for the security of our country, the security of the world."
"If we walk away before the job is done from either of those two countries, we will leave a situation in which the very people that we're fighting everywhere, including in extremism in our own country, are heartened and emboldened and we can't afford that to happen," he said.
"What we've got to do is to see that job through."