No principle at stake here

Another New Statesman piece on “Islamophobia” – as usual not defined or specified, as usual functioning to conflate dislike of Islam with hatred of Muslims and thus make the former taboo along with the latter.

Last week I was asked to think of an issue on which I’ve changed my mind. I said the Iraq war, but if I’d been asked this week I might have said something else: Islamophobia. I used to think it wasn’t a problem.

Before I explain why, let’s look at one particular news story, by which I mean embarrassingly trivial non-story. Marks and Spencer is allowing its Muslim employees not to serve alcohol or pork products. A privately owned company has a policy that if its employees want to opt out of doing things to which they have a religious objection, they can.

I mean, it’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.

Oh come on. If the thing the employees want to opt out of doing is just a routine part of the job, and their not doing it is a nuisance for other people, then it’s not just a slam dunk that it’s not a problem for employers to say go right ahead. If people get jobs as cashiers in supermarkets and then want to refuse to sell some of the products…it’s not just obvious that that’s fine.

We here in the US have extra opportunities to be aware of that because of pharmacists who refuse to sell the morning after pill, and some even birth control. You see what I mean? It’s making their religion an inconvenience to other people; it’s refusing to do bits of their job because god.

But of course it’s not a real issue, and neither is there any principle at stake here beyond queue management. The desire to be served quickly in a shop seems to have got tangled up with weighty concepts like “free society”. Listen, if you think you’re queuing too long at M&S, go to Sainsbury’s – that’s the beauty of a free society. Shops can sell pretty much what and how they want, and we can buy from where we want. M&S is not a school nor the Church of England nor the BBC. It’s a commercial retailer acting within the law.

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.

No, it’s not that easy. There is a principle at stake here beyond “queue management” - the principle of treating everyone the same, as opposed to staging self-important little Religious Refusals. It’s the principle of secularism extended to the broader outside world, where we really just do not want strangers picking and choosing among us on religious grounds. We don’t want Catholics refusing to sell meat on Fridays, we don’t want Southern Baptists refusing to sell to women in jeans, we don’t want Mormons slipping little pamphlets into our reusable shopping bags along with the milk and marmalade, we don’t want Jews asking if our food is kosher, we don’t want Muslims refusing to sell us pork or alcohol.

…a year of stories like the M&S one has persuaded me that our national news agenda is distorted by a deep suspicion of Muslims. Islam animates our media like few other topics, and just as the left’s obsession with Israel overlaps, unprovably but unmistakably, with anti-Semitism, so there is something that just smells funny about the recurrent shock-horror headlines over vanishingly insignificant issues of conduct. Playground spite is being dressed up as “debate”.

Take the row over whether university societies should allow segregated debates: it’s a tiny story affecting about seven people, but because it involves Islam, national figures weigh in and commentators with virtually no knowledge or interest in the people concerned express passionate certainty.

Oh well, if it affects only about seven people (which it doesn’t), then never mind – just go ahead and allow gender segregation. Of course, Ian Leslie isn’t the one whose gender is seen as a source of pollution…