As a teetotal Christian, I would not want to sell alcohol. If I worked at Marks & Spencer, and had politely asked a customer to pay another member of staff for her champagne, I doubt that it would have led to a national media story. Marks & Spencer’s policy on this issue has hit the headlines because of a staff member who made such a request – and who is a Muslim. This conveniently suits the agenda of the right-wing media, obsessed as they are with portraying Muslims as weird.
Ever since 2001, stories involving Islam have come to be regarded as inherently more newsworthy than stories involving most other religions. In the light of the controversy, Marks & Spencer confirmed yesterday that they would not force a Jewish member of staff to handle pork. This has hardly been reported at all. It would not, of course, suit the agenda of those who like to accuse supermarkets (and society generally) of “giving in” to Islam.
In the last few hours, I have received a stream of aggressive messages on Twitter as a result of expressing my sympathy for the Muslim checkout worker concerned. Of course, there is an argument that all staff in supermarkets should be required to handle any item on sale. While I do not agree with this argument, it can be expressed reasonably and peacefully. The tweets I have received, on the other hand, consist largely of attacks on Muslims.
One of the most bizarre tweets asked why I had not condemned the killing of Lee Rigby. Firstly, I have done (on Twitter and this blog, at the time of the murder). Secondly, how can anyone possibly compare a polite refusal to sell alcohol with a cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man in the street? This is the grotesque level of bigotry to which media-fuelled Muslim-bashing has led.
Bill Main-Ian, UKIP’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Carshalton and Wallington, tweeted me to tell me I was talking “absolute rubbish”. He added, “There is no force about it. If their beliefs are in conflict, why are they applying for the job?”
Perhaps because there’s mass unemployment, Bill, and half a million people reliant on food banks thanks to austerity policies that UKIP support.
Another tweet asked if I would support a Muslim who refused to serve gay people. One Twitter user told me it was like “refusing to assist people who are different to me”, which would lead to her being “sacked for discrimination”.
Yes, it would, and rightly so. It would of course be wrong if a member of M&S staff refused to serve non-Muslims or non-Christians or gay people or disabled people or people over 6’2”. This is already illegal (if not enforced as much as it should be). It is not the same as not wanting to handle, or deal in, a particular product. We must not confuse freedom of conscience with freedom to discriminate.
As someone who would like to see the entire economic system changed, and workers given far more control, I am not suggesting that these confusions can be solved simply by M&S (or anyone else) adopting a simple policy. However, while private corporations continue to dominate employment, it should not be impossible to expect them to be reasonable about respecting conscience and religious (or non-religious) choices.
It has long been the case that employers such as M&S might allocate Muslims and Jews, along with other teetotal or vegetarian staff members, to duties such as the bakery counter or shelf-stacking. It is also a sad reflection on our consumer-driven, alcohol-drenched society that alcohol can be bought at every aisle in a supermarket rather than some of them only.
Even the customer who made the original complaint acknowledged that the Muslim checkout assistant was polite when explaining that she could not sell alcohol. Such respect and reasonableness seems sadly lacking in much of the discussion resulting from the utterly unnecessary media storm.