UK steps up counter-extremism push despite Muslim concern

AFP , Tuesday 19 Jan 2016

Women wears full-face veils
Women wears full-face veils as they shop in London in this file photograph dated September 16, 2013. (File Photo: REUTERS)

Britain's government backed schools that want to ban Muslim women and girls from wearing full-face veils as it ramped up efforts Tuesday to counter the appeal of groups like Islamic State (ISIS).

The day after Prime Minister David Cameron warned Muslim women to learn English or risk deportation, ministers launched a website to help parents who are worried their children may be at risk of radicalisation.

Speaking at a school in east London from which a trio of girls moved to Syria last year, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the website was targeting "an enemy... putting poison in the minds and hatred in the hearts of our most vulnerable young people."

The Educate Against Hate site says signs for parents to look out for include children spending too much time online and "wanting to shut down debate or pursue the path of segregation".

The measures come amid grave concern over the number of people travelling from Britain to Syria to try to join militant groups such as ISIS.

Some 800 Britons have gone to the war-torn country since 2012, with half of them still thought to be there. A further 600 have been stopped from travelling.

Ahead of the website's launch, Cameron's government was drawn into a fresh debate about whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear full-face veils at school.

While Britain currently has no blanket ban on veils, unlike other European countries like France, schools are allowed to prohibit them.

Morgan emphasised this in an interview with BBC radio Tuesday but added: "There are certain things... particularly learning to read and to speak, where actually seeing the teacher's mouth is very, very important".

Michael Wilshaw, the head of schools watchdog Ofsted, has backed a ban on veils in schools.

Cameron said Monday he would "always back the authority and the institution" if bodies such as courts and border guards asked to see a veiled woman's face.

Asked about a possible overall ban, he said: "I do not think that would help."

But his government's approach to the issue has drawn criticism from some moderate Muslim groups.

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, told AFP that conflating two separate issues -- the veil and the website -- was not constructive.

"This doesn't help the debate," he said. "We accept we've got a problem with extremism, with radicalisation and people joining ISIL (another acronym for ISIS) and that's what we've got to confront, not minor issues."

Highlighting concerns over radicalisation, a documentary was due to be shown later Tuesday featuring Siddhartha Dhar, a Briton suspected of being the gunman who featured in an ISIS execution video released earlier this month.

The programme features interviews with Dhar -- a former bouncy castle salesman who was born a Hindu but converted to Islam, taking the name Abu Rumaysah -- filmed in London before he moved to Syria in 2014.

One sequence reportedly shows Dhar rummaging in his garage before emerging with an ISIS flag, saying: "One day when the sharia comes, you will see this black flag everywhere" -- including over Downing Street.

Dhar's sister Konika told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that, while she was not certain the man in the ISIS video was her brother, she believed he had been "brainwashed".

"He was fun-loving, very laid back, easy going, very friendly with everyone and I think it's quite hard for me to even know within myself what triggered him to become the person he has become today," she said.

Konika Dhar said she had made several attempts to contact her brother in Syria and had had two brief email exchanges.

"I can't accept that he would ever do that," she said when asked about whether her brother was the man in the video. "I still don't believe it."

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