Apply tolerance, but test it against the principles of the good society

Britain is a tolerant country, even if sometimes it seems that politicians are over-fond of saying so. This is not a smug pat on the collective back. Rather, it is an appraisal of the laws we have; the rigorous scrutiny to which our government, opposition parties and legal institutions regularly subject them; their questioning by a free press and the energy with which we pursue debates as arcane as the rights and wrongs of wearing veils and crosses.

We are now many days into the veil issue, presented first by Jack Straw when he wrote in his local paper of his discomfort discussing a female constituent's problems if he could not see her face. Many objections to his comments are unanswerable. Should a male politician tell women what to wear? Would a man with a beard, or a pierced teenager, have met with similar requests? And if, as has been improbably argued on his behalf, he was defending all repressed women, shouldn't he have challenged the oppressors rather than the victims?

None the less, Jack Straw has done a service, sparking a debate long overdue in this country. Narrowly, it is about religious observance in a secular society. More broadly, it is about how we protect values such as freedom of speech, the rule of law and the right of free worship. These values are universal, enshrined at the United Nations and elsewhere. They are not, and should not be, portrayed as exclusively "western", or indeed British. A welcome debate about "Britishness" is also under way. All ethnic and faith groups should join that discussion. But the two debates are largely separate, and the crossover is small.

These questions are not easy to reconcile. The war in Iraq, the mistrust generated by terrorist attacks within Britain and the government's increasingly illiberal legislative response have undermined public faith in a cohesive multicultural democracy. The overwhelming majority of Muslims who oppose terrorism feel affronted and under attack. Liberal secularists feel threatened by beliefs they do not understand.

Into this vacuum of trust has walked Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, sparking fresh controversy with her call to Muslims to tackle extremists. The hostility to her proposals is baffling. Kelly identified a set of non-negotiable shared values (such as free speech, equality of opportunity, and respect for the law and each other) on which a free society had to be based.

As our political editor points out on page nine, this was no catalogue of platitudes, but marks a sharp change of government direction. Kelly is undoing Straw's past mistakes. Instead of dealing with self-appointed representatives of the "Muslim community", Kelly will direct funding and help to organisations prepared to support these shared values and to tackle extremism, and withhold it from those unwilling to. This is not, as the Labour peer Lord Ahmed has said, "demonising a community". Nor is it the cause of the "drumbeat of hysteria against British Muslims", as one commentator put it.

What we have learned in recent weeks is that the values of an open society must be argued for, not assumed. If we want to preserve them, we have to defend them. Sometimes, like Straw and Lord Ahmed, we have to risk offending others. Lord Ahmed, though wrong in his analysis, has the right to warn ministers how their words sound to young Muslims in poor communities.

Many in the media and some in politics have indulged in blatant or subtle Islamophobia in expressing their views. All manifestations of racism and lack of respect for other cultures are to be abhorred. At the same time, as Peter Wilby pointed out a few weeks ago, Britain is in danger of becoming a nation all too ready to take offence.

The challenge for different traditions trying to live together harmoniously is to have these debates in the context of the shared values Kelly speaks of.

Tolerance is not, as some contributions to the Great Veil Debate appear to believe, something that might run out if tested too far. It is, and must remain, the mainstay of our culture. We must apply it, but also test it rigorously against the universal principles on which all good societies are based.

Small idea, big change

In our last issue we marked the terrible murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the fearless journalist who did more than anyone to highlight Russian brutality in Chechnya. NS readers had nominated Politkovskaya this spring as one of their "Heroes of Our Time".

This week, we have a happier story to tell: the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to another of those on our list. Dr Muhammad Yunus, founder and general manager of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, pioneered the idea of microfinance - lending small amounts of money to the poor, without collateral. There are now roughly 10,000 microfinance institutions in the world, all following the Grameen example and owned largely by the people they serve.

Jacques Attali, nominating Dr Yunus in the NS, wrote: "He has changed the lives of many millions by giving men and women in dozens of countries the chance to secure financing for their small businesses."

An economics scholar, Dr Yunus is a shining light of social enterprise, the practice of harnessing skills used in finance and business for the public good. His approach is a far cry from many of the corporate social responsibility schemes of multinationals, which are often mere public relations exercises that do good in extremely limited areas without having any impact on the balance sheet.

Dr Yunus provides a powerful example of local empowerment, hard-headedness - and true social responsibility.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Emergency: How only carbon rationing can save the world