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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The Lib Dems' troubled start doesn't bode well for them

Rows over homosexuality and anti-Semitism are obscuring the party's anti-Brexit stance.

Tim Farron has broken his silence on the question of whether or not gay sex is a sin. (He doesn't.)

Frankly, this isn't the start to the general election campaign that the Liberal Democrats would have wanted. Time that they hoped would be spent talking about how their man was the only one standing up to Brexit has instead been devoted to what Farron thinks about homosexuality.

Now another row may be opening up, this time about anti-Semitism in the Liberal Democrats after David Ward, the controversial former MP who among other things once wrote that "the Jews" were "within a few years of liberation from the death camps...inflicting atrocities on Palestinians" has been re-selected as their candidate in Bradford East. That action, for many, makes a mockery of Farron's promise that his party would be a "warm home" for the community.

Politically, my hunch is that people will largely vote for the Liberal Democrats at this election because of who they're not: a Conservative party that has moved to the right on social issues and is gleefully implementing Brexit, a riven Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, etc. But both rows have hobbled Farron's dream that his party would use this election.

More importantly, they've revealed something about the Liberal Democrats and their ability to cope under fire. There's a fierce debate ongoing about whether or not what Farron's beliefs should matter at all. However you come down on that subject, it's been well-known within the Liberal Democrats that there were questions around not only Farron's beliefs but his habit of going missing for votes concerning homosexuality and abortion. It was even an issue, albeit one not covered overmuch by the press, in the 2015 Liberal Democrat leadership election. The leadership really ought to have worked out a line that would hold long ago, just as David Cameron did in opposition over drugs. (Readers with long memories will remember that Cameron had a much more liberal outlook on drugs policy as an MP than he did after he became Conservative leader.)

It's still my expectation that the Liberal Democrats will have a very good set of local elections. At that point, expect the full force of the Conservative machine and their allies in the press to turn its fire on Farron and his party. We've had an early stress test of the Liberal Democrats' strength under fire. It doesn't bode well for what's to come.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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