The furore over M&S's Muslim staff policy shows that Islamophobia is a problem

Our national news agenda is distorted by a deep suspicion of Muslims.

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.

Now, why should this minor matter of HR policy be of interest to anyone outside of Marks and Spencer? I don’t know. Actually, I do: it’s because the Telegraph has found an unnamed customer who claims to have been refused service by an assistant.

I’m not sure if this incident occurred exactly as reported, but even if it did, ask yourself: has anything like this happened to you at M&S? Do you know of anyone to whom it has happened? Don’t you think, if this was a real issue, affecting thousands of people, you might have heard about it via channels other than one anecdote related in one paper?

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.

Inconvenient, perhaps (if it ever happens, which I doubt) but hardly the kind of thing I’d go to prison for in order to defend. Nor do we have any evidence that anyone has been or will be refused service (OK, apart from that one anonymous person in the Telegraph, but Telegraph readers – well, have you read the comments?).

So let’s review. Nobody is being refused service. The policy isn’t Islam-specific: Jewish employees don’t have to sell pork if they don’t want to. For once, a big employer isn’t coercing anyone to do anything – in fact the opposite.

So why is this a news story? And why is it a story about Islam?

Until now I’ve been sceptical about the arguments of those who throw the term "Islamophobia" around. Partly this a reaction to word itself, a lazy emulation of the term homophobia (which incidentally means fear of the same, which is of course exactly what it isn’t). But mainly it’s because I don’t think the British people are phobic about Islam or its adherents.

Measured against any country in the world with a comparable mix of races and cultures (of which there are few) our record of tolerance stands up well. Every day, people in offices and shops rub along with Muslims, laugh with each other, help each other out. The calmness with which British people reacted to Lee Rigby’s killing was impressive. The EDL must have been dreadfully disappointed.

But 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.

Earlier this year, the BBC’s Question Time devoted twenty minutes to a discussion of whether Muslim nurses should be allowed to wear the veil when dealing with patients. As members of the panel – none of whom were Muslim - ploughed through their sententious answers, none thought to ask why it was necessary to ask this question in the first place, since nobody had yet been able to cite one concrete instance of the problem it referred to.

These are not news stories. They are spasms of prejudice. In ten or twenty years time, they’ll be forgotten. But when we’re reminded of them, we’ll feel ashamed of the way they filled the air in 2013.

Marks and Spencer is allowing its Muslim employees not to serve alcohol or pork products. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.