In a paper on “Cohesion and Integration,” leaked to the press, the Church of England criticises the Blair government’s privileged attention to the Muslims community. Such policies, it says, have backfired and further caused a separation in the society. The paper further prophesises that the Commission on Integration and Cohesion formed by the communities secretary is sure to be doomed. The Church is suspicious of the government’s moves to make the country a multi-faith society, and accuses it of sidelining the Church. This report comes close on the heels of Jack Straw’s strikingly polite “appeal” to Muslim women to shed their veils because, as he put it, this is an obvious statement of separation. This, he is concerned, strains the relationship between the two communities. Accordingly, the former British foreign secretary has been asking women to remove their veils when they come to his office for a meeting. It is quite acceptable that Mr. Straw feels uncomfortable talking to someone with veil because he cannot see the person’s mouth and nose. However, he must realize that this is but an entirely personal discomfort. He fails to explain how his personal uneasiness is translated into separation between the communities – and it is far-fetched to say that this, when shared by other reticent people, is the reason for strained relations between the two communities. According to the UK Protect-Hijab organization, fewer than 5% of Muslim women in Britain wear a full veil. That is truly a small percentage of affect inter-community relations. But even if this were a larger or growing percentage, the practice itself should be taken as a proof of a healthy multicultural society’s diversity, rather than an element of separation or intimidation, as Phil Woolas – the man who quite ironically serves as Britain’s Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion – describes it. Supporting Mr. Straw, he says “Muslim women have every right to do so… But they must realize that other people who don’t understand the culture can find it frightening and intimidating.” While Jack Straw is not one of those who do not understand the culture, as his constituency in 26% Muslim, it is interesting that Mr. Woolas points out the lack of understanding as the reason behind people’s uneasiness with regard to the veil. Enter John Prescott, the deputy prime minister. He rightly says that it is important to have a debate on this issue. Indeed, a discussion on why women wear it in the first place and whether it makes others uncomfortable will bring openness to the issue. And we should be thankful to Mr. Straw for initiating this debate. But where concern is misplaced is in the assertion that the veil does harm to the cohesion of British society. There is a distinction between integration and assimilation, the former being a prerequisite for a cohesive society. While veiled women can be perfectly integrated into a society and be its active members (a fact manifested by them coming to his office with problems), it is wrong to ask them in the name of cohesion to forgo what they choose for themselves. A truly multicultural society needs to be diverse with its members practicing whatever their individual culture requires them to while being able to live harmoniously – without infringing upon the freedoms of the other members. But the stern reaction by some Muslims in Britain to Jack Straw’s remarks and the reported hate crime and mails, one in which a young man snatched the veil off a woman’s face in Liverpool, are unhelpful and show distrust on both sides. A debate on the issue, as was intended by Mr. Straw, is perfectly fine idea. Yet if incidents like these and the condemnation by Muslim groups are to follow, then there can be no cohesion – and it only goes to show that the British society really isn’t ready for such a debate. The writer is a staff member.