Should Muslims handle pork and wine?

halal signOn hearing that Muslim staff at the UK supermarket chain Marks & Spencer could now refuse to sell pork and wine, the decision seemed to be an instance of making too great a concession to religious sensibilities. I’ve shied away from gratuitously offending those with religious beliefs for some time now, but being opposed to Blasphemy Day, for example, doesn’t mean that you need to commit to respecting every demand made in the name of some or other god.

There are various reasons to think that Muslims should not be able to opt-out of handling wrapped and sealed pork, or alcohol in bottles. On a broad political or legislative level, allowing them to do so would result in a private choice incurring a very public cost. In a secular society like the UK, USA or South Africa, my decision to adhere to a particular belief system that comes with costs doesn’t commit anyone else to bearing those costs – and here, all (pork- and alchohol-buying) shoppers would encounter the inefficiency of not having all cashiers available to them.

We’d also need to determine which sorts of beliefs allowed for these sorts of concessions, as there’s in theory no end to the number of religious demands that could be made of employers. This point was made in amusing fashion by MoDawah (@kingofdawah) – ‘expert on everything’ and ‘media Muslim’ on Twitter, who said things like:

  • Just heard that Hindu employees of Aldi don’t have to sell any goods that they fear may be a reincarnated ancestor of theirs #diversity
  • Tesco just announced Atheists don’t have to sell anything that they don’t believe exists #diversity
  • Waitrose announces that Nihilist members of staff don’t have to sell anything that negates one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life

As to whether this concession is even demanded by the Muslim faith (as opposed to certain Muslims just feeling uncomfortable selling these goods), I was alerted to an analysis of the issue by an apparently authoritative Shaykh, who makes it quite clear that Muslims can sell pork and alcohol (though, not in their own supermarkets):

It would be permitted to work on the check out of a supermarket that sells things Muslims consider impermissible (such as pork, alcohol, wine, or food items with haram ingredients). One’s earnings will be lawful (halal).

One could also point out that it would hardly come as a surprise to an employee at Marks & Spencer that these products are on sale there, and that you’d therefore encounter someone wishing to buy them on a regular basis. Reasonable accommodation can be made, certainly – I can understand an employee talking to a supervisor, saying “I would like to be excused from X”, but X can’t be some core competency of the job, like a cashier being asked to sell things to customers.

The long and short of it might be something like: “why did you take the job, if you knew you couldn’t perform it for religious reasons?

Even though the concession in question doesn’t seem required by Islam, and even though it also introduced inefficiencies, my initial reaction to reject it was nevertheless tempered on reflection, when I considered whether it was possible to accommodate this sensitivity (because it’s not a legal requirement of Islam) without introducing those inefficiencies, and of course without putting us on a slippery slope which commits us to respecting all sensitivities (which would be impossible).

For example, monitoring the demand for halal checkout lines (where pork, alcohol, etc. would not be sold) could allow us to designate the required number of lines as such, then clearly signpost them as such so that someone wanting to buy pork or alcohol doesn’t get turned away when they reach the front of the line.

But this idea wouldn’t be simple to implement at all, and would introduce inefficiencies of its own. Employing people to work on the halal checkout lines leaves you with the problem of what to do with them when demand drops, or when you calculate it wrong. While you might have assumed that you need to bring in three “halal cashiers” on a particular day, you might find you only need one. Don’t send two of them home, though – first because you might not be allowed to, given their conditions of employment and relevant laws, and second because there might be a sudden rush of Muslim customers. The HR complications, in other words, might be significant.

Lastly, there’s a general issue raised here that is rather tricky, in that there are a number of historical concessions to religion that were made before religion and secularism became so politicized and public, and in a time where we were far more willing to politely live and let live, rather than taking to Twitter to shout about nobody respecting what we feel entitled to (there is of course the other side of that coin, where we’ve learnt more about what our rights are, and are now expressing legitimate grievances more often too).

Conscientious objection is one, but dis-analogous because it seems self evident that it’s asking a lot more to put a gun in someone’s hand and ask them to kill, versus putting a scanner in someone’s hand, and asking them to ring up some pork chops. Likewise, it seems a clearer violation of someone’s sensibilities to ask them to perform abortions if they have a religious objection to doing so.

But here in South Africa, marriage officers can lodge an objection to performing gay marriages, and become legally exempt from having to officiate under those circumstances. Even though I’d never want a homophobe to officiate my wedding – regardless of whether or not I was gay – should he or she get to have the option of refusing? I think not. Those of you in other parts of the world will no doubt know of similar concessions already made, and that you might ideally want to revise.

Not all preferences can be accommodated. Regardless of whether it’s a religious issue (as in this case) or not (imagine an environmentalist cashier, and how he or she could develop a principled objection to selling some item, or a vegan, or a Pollan-ite), the answer can’t simply be to accede to any demand, because as I’ve argued before, that means those who complain the loudest winning a disproportionate number of battles.

And the answer which seems in principle correct – namely operating as a secular organization, and only making these concessions on an ad hoc basis – is certain to offend some religious sensibilities, some of the time. What this seems to mean is that it’s the religious sensibilities that need to change, rather than the rest of us needing to feel their impact on our secular lives.

[Edit: today, Marks & Spencer are saying that allowing Muslims to refuse to sell these things was never their policy.]