Freedom for all, except Muslims. That’s the message that Muslims are rightly taking from what British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called a worldwide debate on the wearing of face veils by Muslim women.

The debate is becoming so intense that the chairman of the UK Commission for Racial Equality said yesterday that the issue risked sparking “fire” on the streets.

According to Blair, the face veil should be dropped because it is a mark of separation and makes non-Muslims feel uncomfortable.

That’s nonsense. If people feel uncomfortable about face veils, that’s their petty problem. They need to deal with it and not thrust the blame onto Muslim women, who, like everyone else, can wear what they want.

What one wears is a paradigm self-regarding act. And to this end, the limits of such conduct were nailed about 150 years ago by famous British Philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant”.

Opposition to the face veil is all about Western prejudice. It has nothing to do with impertinence by Muslims. As Blair concedes, it makes Westerners feel “uncomfortable”. If that’s right, it’s time for a bit of middle class chilling and open-mindedness. Once the overblown sensitivities of our others start constituting a basis for curtailing our freedoms, liberty in any form is lost.

It is also absurd to suggest that we have a right to view the faces of those with whom we come into contact. The face is just another body part and no more required to be exposed or concealed than breasts, hands and belly buttons. It is simply a Western convention that we tend to expose our faces. But there is nothing about the human condition that requires facial familiarity to forge an integrated society. A quick visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provides conclusive proof of that.

Blair has labelled the face veil as a move towards voluntary apartheid. On this score, he is half right. In fact it is involuntary apartheid, brought about by his intolerance to difference.

If Western politicians want greater religious tolerance and national unity they should unshackle their minds and call for the even greater expression of religious symbols, including face veils.