PREJUDICE against Muslims has "passed the dinner-table test" and become widely socially acceptable in Britain, Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi has claimed.
In a speech designed to stem "the rising tide of anti-religious bigotry", Baroness Warsi – the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet – last night warned that Islamophobia was seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial.
The Dewsbury-born Minister used the speech, at Leicester University, to warn against the tendency to divide Muslims between "moderates" and "extremists", which she said could fuel misunderstanding and intolerance.
She said terrorist offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam.
"It seems to me that Islamophobia has now crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability," she said. "For far too many people, Islamophobia is seen as a legitimate, even commendable, thing.
"You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test.
"So when people get on the tube and see a bearded Muslim, they think 'terrorist'; when they hear 'Halal', they think 'That sounds like contaminated food'; and when they walk past a woman wearing a veil, they think automatically 'That woman's oppressed'.
"And what's particularly worrying is that this can lead down the slippery slope to violence."
Urging Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent extremism, she said: "The deeper Islamophobia seeps into our culture, the easier becomes the task of the extremist recruiting sergeant. Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law they also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims or divide our society on the basis of faith."
Baroness Warsi also revealed that she raised the issue of Islamophobia with the Pope during his visit to Britain last year, urging him to "create a better understanding between Europe and its Muslim citizens".
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister refused to say whether Downing Street had cleared Baroness Warsi's speech or whether David Cameron supported her views.
Asked whether Mr Cameron felt that discrimination against Muslims had become more prevalent, she said: "He thinks that equality in society is important and he's wholly against any inequality or discrimination, the Prime Minister's view is that he thinks it's an important debate."
The speech came as controversial American preacher Pastor Terry Jones said he was disappointed to be barred from the United Kingdom, calling his exclusion from the country "unfair".
Mr Jones sparked outrage when he announced plans by his Florida-based church to burn copies of the Koran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
He said: "I have no intention of doing anything against British law. We feel this is definitely against constitutional rights to travel, freedom of speech.
"We believe that our visit there could be beneficial."
He also has personal reasons for wanting to come to Britain, as his daughter and grandchildren live in England.
A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government opposes extremism in all its forms which is why we have excluded Pastor Terry Jones from the UK."
He added: "Numerous comments made by Pastor Jones are evidence of his unacceptable behaviour.
"Coming to the UK is a privilege, not a right, and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good."