Government policy on multiculturalism has been left in tatters
It was a simple but telling story from "multicultural" Britain. A Muslim minicab driver refused to carry a blind passenger in London because her guide dog was "unclean" according to his religious beliefs.
The driver, Abdul Rashhed Majekodumni, ended up in court on Friday and was fined £1,400 because UK law requires all licensed cab drivers to carry guide dogs. The cabbie, however, remains unrepentant, and says he will continue to refuse to carry guide dogs.
This is not how multiculturalism is supposed to work. It is supposed to be about "celebrating differences", but there is not much to celebrate when the differences lead to a battle in front of Marylebone magistrates.
The day before Mr Majekodumni appeared in court, Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, made his own dramatic contribution to the debate.
The former foreign secretary, whose Blackburn constituency is 25 per cent Muslim, suggested that community relations would be helped if Muslim women did not wear full veils.
Mr Straw said that for the past year he had been asking Muslim women who came to see him in his constituency office to remove their veils so that he could see them face-to-face. Wearing the full veil was "a visible statement of separation and difference". On Friday, Mr Straw went further, suggesting that he would rather women stopped wearing the veil altogether.
Then he must have sat back and waited for the fall-out: riots, Union flags being burned, extremist Muslims calling for his death. Only it didn't happen. There has been criticism. Ibrahim Nogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, a prominent Muslim scholar, asked if Mr Straw meant that people should give up cultural and religious customs "simply because a vast majority of the country do not share them?"Reefat Drabu, the chairman of the council's social and family affairs committee, said Mr Straw's comments would "alienate Muslim women" and prompt many more to wear the veil to "prove a point". Hamid Qureshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said it was "blatant Muslim-bashing". Last night, two prominent Muslims who helped Mr Straw's election campaign said they felt "angry and let down”
But there was also widespread support. Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley, West Yorkshire, said: "To exclude the person you are talking to from your facial expressions is not reasonable." The BBC website had 10,000 "hits" after a Newsnight debate on the issue on Friday. Many left messages backing Mr Straw. It was clear he had said something many people had thought but never dared to say. He had opened a debate not just about veils but the very nature of multiculturalism.
Mr Straw was accused of making his remarks in an attempt to grab headlines and boost his chances of becoming deputy prime minister by taking a "tough" line on multiculturalism. Political allies of Mr Straw said this was nonsense. "He has been thinking about this for the past year and had given a lot of thought as to whether this was the right time to speak out," one aide said.
Mr Straw is not the only one to have been mulling over these issues for some time. A month after the 7/7 bomb attacks in London last year, David Davis, the shadow home secretary, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that multiculturalism had failed Britain, called for Muslims
to unite behind "common values of nationhood" and said the Government "should not flinch from demanding tolerance and respect for the British way of life".
Last night, Mr Davis returned to the subject, more convinced than ever that urgent action was needed to slam the multiculturalism juggernaut into reverse. Multiculturalism had encouraged a divided society and led to a "splintering of loyalties which is a threat to modern society", he said. "Britain has closed societies within an open society, and the situation has been made worse by the Government's policy of neglect. For too long there has been a habit of tiptoeing around issues, particularly with respect to Muslim communities. This has led to the sort of problems that have fostered terrorism in our own country."
Ever since the Tube and bus bombings of 7/7, when dozens of innocent people were killed by British-born Islamist terrorists, concern has been growing about "separate" and "closed" communities: people who are in the UK but not of it. Parallel societies where the values are different from and increasingly in conflict with those of the host country. Multiculturalism, critics say, has become dangerous segregation that threatens the fabric of British society