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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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