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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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.