Dear M&S…

So according to that great bastion of reason and truth, The Daily Mail, M&S gives Muslim staff the right to refuse to sell alcohol or pork if they choose.

I glanced at the headline yesterday and my first thought was, “That’s nice.”  

And I didn’t really think any more of it until I ventured over to Facebook where my timeline was a stream of insults directed at M&S from all directions. What was M&S thinking? This is just pandering. It’s like vegetarians refusing to handle meat, someone said. This is why my children’s school doesn’t have a nativity play any more, said someone else.

I’m usually pretty good at not getting involved in these debates. But then I saw the words I couldn’t ignore:

“I suppose THEY won’t be working on Christmas Day!! Hypocrites.” 

“What’s wrong with celebrating OUR country and traditions?” 

I hate that.

I hate that someone would reduce any issue of faith to “them” and “us”.

I hate that someone would assume that people who don’t share their ethnicity or faith can’t share their nationality.

I hate that someone thinks that supporting one faith means you shouldn’t also support other faiths.

Here’s the thing. This story made me quite proud to shop at M&S. I would rather give my money to a company that affords its employees a little dignity and does not pressure them into doing something their faith forbids than a company that does the opposite.  I can’t understand why anyone would feel otherwise. The company has policies in place to support the faith of all employees, including Christians and Jews. Most decent employers in the UK do the same. And have done for many years – this really, really isn’t news.

In reality, once you take a step away from hysterical newspaper headlines, these policies really don’t inconvenience anyone. Let’s face it – what’s the worst that could happen?

The policy (for the most part) at M&S, Tesco and Morrisons is that Muslim staff who don’t want to handle certain products don’t work on the checkout. I assume sometimes, perhaps during very busy periods, that’s not completely possible and a store might want “all hands on deck”. So you could – occasionally – find yourself in a queue where you can’t pay for alcohol.

Well, I sometimes shop at the Morrisons supermarket near Flea’s school. The checkout staff include teenagers – who aren’t allowed to handle alcohol. When there’s a 16 or 17 year old operating a till, the supermarket puts up a small sign letting shoppers know they can’t purchase alcohol at that till, and to use another till. I’ve never once seen a customer complain. It’s never been a major inconvenience (unlike the policy that states if one checkout operator queries your age, you  aren’t able to buy an 18-rated DVD without ID from anyone in the store, even if everyone else can see you’re pushing 40, and you’re reduced to pointing out your GREY HAIRS to them).

We’re an increasingly diverse country. Not everyone shares the same ethnicity, the same sexuality, the same – or indeed any – faith.

Does that bring with it challenges, and occasional friction? Of course. There are centuries of prejudice and stereotypes to overcome, not to mention well-meaning but over-cautious people that go out of their way to be fair to everyone, and in the process create things that don’t really make anyone happy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. That it isn’t a worthy goal to create a society that supports faith, whatever guise it takes.

Not convinced? Let’s just take a moment and think about the message that “them” and “us” sends. “Them and us” is the sort of thinking that leads to soldiers being hacked down like animals in the street. “Them and us” is what leads to people being beaten up on their way home because they kissed the wrong person at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Them and us” is name-calling in the playground, and fear and separation. “Them and us” leads to comments like this on the M&S Facebook page: “I shan’t be shopping in M&S any more. The quintessentially British retailer bows down to Muslim beliefs.” 

It’s racism and prejudice, disguised as moral outrage. And I hate it.

Life’s much better when it’s just “us”.

What do you think?


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