The Marks & Spencer non-scandal.

Marks & Spencer have had a terrible week. A Muslim employee told customers they would have to use another checkout, because owing to her religious convictions, she couldn’t serve them alcohol and pork. Marks & Spencer then released a statement stating that staff could indeed refuse to sell items based on their religious beliefs. After an intense public reaction, and a threatened boycott, the company then backtracked and insisted that staff would work elsewhere in the store, if they felt uncomfortable selling certain products. Common sense dictates that the latter should have been policy in the first place.

All in all, the situation was handled terribly by Marks & Spencer. The backlash – especially on social media – has ranged from well considered debate on the nature of personal belief (not just religious) within a secular and professional setting, to the obvious cries of “Islamophobia” from a Galloway-left unable to say much else, to the predictable anti-Muslim bigotry from those who didn’t react with equal vitriol when the Christian B&B owners refused to accommodate a gay couple. Not one to miss a good opportunity for an article, I thought I’d weigh in on the debate.

It seems to me to be largely a non-scandal. It seems to have happened once. The employee in question – by all accounts – was very apologetic for the situation. It isn’t something Muslims are together demanding across the country. It did not need to be blown to this purportion. Christians not wishing to work on a Sunday, are excused from doing so at Marks and Spencer. Jewish people not wishing to work on Saturday, are likewise excused. The problem however, would arise if a Christian came into work on a Sunday of his or her own accord, and then refused to do anything, because it’s Sunday, but continued to be paid. It’s a simple case, to be quite honest. And from my perspective, both the individual and the business share the blame.

The individual must concede that it is their responsibility to work at a place (or a department within a company) that is not likely to compromise deeply held convictions. It is not the duty of a business to inquire into every employee’s deeply held convictions and change policy accordingly. Especially a company with thousands of staff, each with their own beliefs. If I am a vegetarian who doesn’t wish to handle meat, it is unlikely I am going to apply for work at a butchers. Similarly, a key product – especially at Christmas time – at a massive chain of supermarket in the United Kingdom, is alcohol. Unlike a butchers, the supermarket has plenty of different sections, and so if the individual feels confident enough to refuse to serve customers, I’d have to wonder why she didn’t feel confident enough to ask a manager to place her in a different section. If however she did ask to be placed elsewhere, and was refused, then the company only has itself to blame, and the individual cannot be blamed. Furthermore, in that case the company must face the blame for putting an employee in a horrible position in which she would be in the firing line of public scorn.

Ian Leslie writing for the New Statesman makes several errors in his piece on this. Firstly, he appears to be one of those on the Galloway-left who seem to be unable to recognise that any criticism of Islam, is not inherently bigoted “Islamophobia”. Secondly, he exceeds regular New Statesman “Islamophobia” fallacy creation, when he says this:

“On Twitter, Jenni Russell put it to me like this: “Just as Christians can’t refuse to have gays in B&Bs, so Muslims shouldn’t refuse to serve people buying legal goods.” Let’s see: one of them involves denying adults the right to love one another. The other involves denying the basic human right to buy a bottle of Merlot from the first sales assistant available.”

– To use his own logic against him, the B&B owners were not denying adults the right to love each other. They refused to book them a room. If we’re playing the comparison game, then denying the right to love, and not booking them into a room are not comparable either. By Leslie’s own logic on simplistic comparisons therefore, he is Christianophobic and a bigot.

Secondly, If we are to reduce the entire situation down to a simplistic comparison, Leslie is of course quite correct that for we non-believers, denying the basic right to love another human being is not at all comparable to stopping someone buying a Merlot. But for many believers – of all faiths – it isn’t different. The context is the same. Why then accommodate one belief ahead of others? Where is the line drawn? When does that line become “Islamophobic”? That is the delicate challenge. The problem lies in the principle on which accommodating certain beliefs is handled. It is allowing religious belief to dictate policy within a secular framework, and that’s the problem. The underlying issue is the same. The principle is no different. On this occasion, allowing people of certain faiths the right to refuse to serve you, based on their beliefs, is a recipe for disaster.

To be clear, you’re entitled to your beliefs. No one is entitled to tell you not to hold those beliefs. You’re entitled to wear whatever you want, to build private prayer halls, you’re entitled to not handle products that compromise your beliefs. That is your right. But you cannot start dictating where those beliefs are to be held above either secular law (for example, the Christian B&B owners refusing to allow gay people to stay…. bigotry is not permissible) or the policy of the company you’ve decided to work for. You have the right to ask your employer (preferably during an interview phase, or before employment) if you can be placed in a work environment that wont compromise your beliefs. If you do ask to be placed elsewhere, and though the employer does not have to accommodate your request, I would argue that it is common human decency for a company to accommodate those beliefs within a structure that already exists, as best as possible (a vegetarian working for M&S, not being placed on the meat counter, for example). If the employee did in fact ask M&S to be placed elsewhere, and that wasn’t accommodated, then M&S must shoulder most of the blame for this, and for placing her in such a difficult position. But if you are put to work on a section that will almost definitely compromise your beliefs, having not asked to be placed elsewhere, tough. Deal with it, or quit. A Vegetarian who doesn’t wish to handle any meat products, does not get to sit on a till refusing to cash up meat products, if they haven’t asked to be placed away from that situation. If a devout Christian and Muslim were to work in a supermarket, and felt it wrong to serve gay people, tough. Deal with it or quit. If a Catholic at Tesco felt it wrong to serve condoms, and didn’t ask to be placed away from that situation, tough. Deal with it or quit. The same is true in this situation. It’s the primary responsibility of the believer to work somewhere that will not compromise their beliefs, or to ask for certain beliefs to be accommodated as best a company can do within an existing framework. If the company – for whatever reason – cannot accommodate those beliefs, you do not get to invent your own policy.

In this case, the assistant in question was – according to customers – very apologetic. She wasn’t trying to force her faith on the country. She just has very deeply held beliefs, that don’t seem to be held across the Muslim community in Britain. And given the nature of that belief not being widely held even within the Muslim community, the primary responsibility falls on her to ask her employer if it is possible to accommodate that belief, by not working in an environment that directly compromises it. Both she, and Marks & Spencer are the blame. M&S have a PR department to deal with this, the girl in question doesn’t. She’s now in the midst of a horrid media storm, and I can imagine that must be horrible, and I feel for her.

Owing to my inability to Christmas shop at a reasonable time of the year rather than the very last minute, I spent much of today buying gifts. After much hard work looking for gifts but instead settling on vouchers, I felt I deserved to treat myself. So I bought a few bottles of wine for the Christmas period. A couple of Chilean Merlots. The checkout assistant was an older Muslim gentleman. He wished me a Merry Christmas, and happily served me my wine. For most people this is a matter of professionalism, and has never been a problem, for people of any faith. I refuse to call the M&S non-scandal a case of “Islamification” as some are doing. It isn’t. Similarly, those of us who object to the way the employee handled the situation, must not be made to feel as if we fit a simplistic, non-defined “Islamophobic” profile that some seem so joyful to throw about. It is simply a case of someone with deeply held beliefs, not taking the initiative to work at a place – or at least to ask to be placed in a department – where the belief would not be compromised, and a company completely unaware of how to cope with a multitude of beliefs in a plural and secular society.

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