LIVING SPACE in London costs on average £3250 per square metre, so your flat is tiny, ergo the supermarket is your larder. That is why I seem to spend more time at the checkout queue than the cooker.
Scanning the bleeping rows of checkout operators at my east end Sainsbury’s, perhaps two faces out of 22 will be white, pensioners in a second lease of working life. Bangladeshi immigrants and their British-born families make up the majority of the customers and staff.
Onabusyafternoonlastmonth,the snaking queue was the scene of a rare fracas. A young Asian checkout operator, with pious beard and a crocheted Kufi Muslim skullcap, made a big deal out of serving a middle-aged white man who had included a bottle of vodka in his groceries. His wasn’t a discreet arm wave for the attention of a supervisor, it was a full-on hissy fit. At the sight of the vodka bottle he reared from his seat as if the conveyer had presented a freshly slaughtered pig’s head.
Polite society, or that part of it that is a Tower Hamlets queue, did the British thing and turned away as if religious protest was nothing to do with them. The customer, who bore the appearance of someone whose lifestyle choice was to sink the vodka soon after he’d cleared the checkouts, was having none of it though.
“What the bleedin’ ‘ell are you working in a supermarket for if you won’t handle booze?” he shouted, setting the queue to Defcon Two on the London racial tension scale. Fair question I thought, as I played spot the bigot. I was sure it wasn’t the guy with a taste for vodka.
The hothead till worker’s protest was more testosterone than Taliban but he succeeded in making his point, loudly, in front of 18 female Muslim staff who won’t let their religion bother their job.
Fast forward to this week, and my refurbishedlocalstorehasdoubledits floorspace (while strangely halving its selection of wines and spirits) and, I notice, given in to this brand of inverse bigotry posing as victimhood.
Sainsbury’s, “keen to accommodate the religious beliefs of all staff”, now allows Muslim workers who object to alcohol on religious grounds to have a colleague take their place. The company didn’t see that such cack-handed posturing does Islam no favours, reinforcing a perception of an intolerant and unbending religion, which is not, I believe, where the majority of British Muslims are.
Worse still is the atmosphere it creates within its own workforce. The craven attitude of Sainsbury’s creates a space the religious fanatics will use to bully their mostly female fellow workers, arguing they are not good Muslims iftheychoosetoservealcohol when they have the option not to.
Most Islamic organisations are as baffled by the move as I was, saying Muslims who refuse to sell alcoholarerenegingontheiremploymentagreements. I mean, where does the logic stop? Should I hesitate to approach checkouts with a pork pie or products containing gelatin? Does the absurdity extend to Mr Hothead not handling CDs with semi-clad female singers on the cover, or is it just the more morally ambiguous devil’s own drink I should keep away from him? What will it mean when Sainsbury’s is eventually taken over by new Muslim owners? Interests connected with the royal family of Qatar have spent more than £2 billion buying a25% stake in the company, which they hope to control.
Having an entire culture hijacked and caricatured by zealots is not something unique to the British Muslim community. I remember a time when it was difficulttobuycondomsonthe predominantly Catholic island of Barra orsweetsonaSundayonthemainly Presbyterian island of Lewis.
Neither situation holds true today. Mostpeopleconcurthattogeton togetherwehavetobehavewith reasonabletolerance,remembering religious observance is a choice, not a right to impose our will on others.
Professor Mona Siddiqui made just that point on Radio Four’s Thought For The Day last Thursday. At the point I usually stretch for the electric toothbrush shemadeacompellingcaseagainst religiousconsciencerestrictingthe freedoms of others. She concluded with a universal truth that it would be a great mistake to believe our faith can be measured by public displays of conviction.
Siddiqui, a leading Islamic scholar, never stops challenging fellow Muslims to confront those who choose alienation over integration in order to build themselves a sectarian nest.
Later the same day, a friend returned from Sarajevo with news of very different religious observance. In the main square of the rebuilt city, jostling for space with themosque,hefoundbarsserving alcohol to relaxed young Muslims.
The form of Islam practised by Sarajevo’s Muslims evolved over six centuries in an urban European context. Despite being besieged by the Serbs in the 1990s, the Sarajevo Muslims remain open and tolerant to this day.
Duringthesiege,MiddleEastern jihadists came to the city but were given short shrift by Bosnians, who didn’t like being told they were not good Muslims. The European Muslims recognised that the jihadists were not trying to defend their religious precepts but the traditions of a conservative way of life.
All Sainsbury’s has done is given this code of religious behaviour, inherited from rural, patriarchal societies, elbow space in the staff canteen where it will be used to intimidate moderate Muslims.