"I'm not prejudiced, Some of my best friends are Muslims. I just hate it when they don't flaunt it"
Years of mockery have made even the dimmest bigot realise that denying that they are prejudiced by saying "some of my best friends are [members of whichever group the prejudice has been expressed about]" does not strengthen their case. Back in the day, a regular target of such lines used to be gay people 'flaunting' their sexuality, now it is Muslims for doing the opposite.
In a way, I rather regret the passing of the 'some of my best friends...' disclaimer. A lot could be done for tolerance and good relations in this country if everyone who wrote about what a bad thing Islam is had some vague notion what they were talking about based on personal friendship with people who are Muslims, rather than just from watching the telly or reading articles by other people with equally little idea on the internet.
On the subject of the veil, I liked Bob Piper's comment that it is a bit odd for anyone who spends time blogging to get excited by the problems caused by the inability to communicate face to face, and I thought Tom Watson has it about right when he says that, "For a lot of people, visiting their MP is quite a nervy experience. I always try and re-assure them that I'm not an ogre. Passing judgement, no matter how diplomatically, on their state of dress would run counter to what I was trying to achieve."
The issue that Jack Straw, someone who in fairness to him has worked closely with Muslims for decades, claimed to be raising is that of separation. Prejudices, whether about faith, gender or sexuality, get broken down when people from different backgrounds and cultures have the chance to play and learn together at school, work together, socialise together and so on. The reaction to his comments shows that there are a lot of people who feel more negatively towards Muslims when they see or hear about women wearing the niqab. Trying to decide whose 'fault' it is that people feel like that is largely unproductive, but working out how to change this situation is important.
My friend and former colleague on the council, Sabir-Hussain Mirza, worked with some friends and neighbours in late 2001 to set up an Anglo-Asian Association in Oxford. This group puts on successful events in east Oxford involving people of all different faiths and none (the last one I was at had well over one hundred people from a wide variety of backgrounds), and holds a range of different kinds of meetings including women-only groups and meetings. Every Saturday in the centre of Oxford, the Oxford Islam and Muslim Awareness Project, a group of young Muslim professionals who came together in the wake of the London bombings, have a stall to talk to people about Islam and collect for good causes like the victims of the earthquake - www.oxfordimap.org if you want to find out more.
There are grassroots projects like this all over the country, and they do more to reduce prejudice than any number of attempts by cabinet ministers to 'have a debate' by picking subjects which just polarise opinion and let the loons spend more time on the telly poisoning people's minds.