Marks & Spencer, UK retailer, apologizes over Muslim employee controversy

Major U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer has apologized after a company policy that allowed Muslim employees to refuse to serve customers buying pork or alcohol triggered a furious backlash.

The policy was first reported by the Daily Telegraph after an incident where a customer in central London buying a bottle of champagne was told to use another cash register due to the religion of the sales assistant.

“I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me,” the anonymous customer told the Daily Telegraph. “She told me to wait until another member of staff was available.”

“I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised. I’ve never come across that before.”

Customers trying to buy alcohol in preparation for Christmas were also told to wait.

The decision triggered an angry backlash, with thousands of customers declaring that they would boycott the store as a result of the move, which was attacked as putting political correctness before customers.

Facebook user Mandy O’Neill said on the “Boycott Marks and Spencers” Facebook page, “I have shopped in M&S yesterday and have done so for many years. I will never set foot in this store again until they resume back to normality.”

Meanwhile Wendy Mason said “Keep out of politics and religion M&S. By taking up this policy you are opening up a hornet’s nest which will end in misery.”

On Monday, the company apologized for the incident.

“Customer service is our number-one priority. We regret that in the highlighted case this was not delivered to our usual standards,” a statement released by the company read. “We would like to apologize for any resulting confusion and reassure our customers that this was an isolated incident.”

However it wasn’t clear if it had fully walked back the policy, with the company saying that it remained committed to “working closely with any employee with religious beliefs of any denomination that restrict specific food or drink handling.”

“Requests are considered on a case by case basis and may lead to an individual working in a department where conflicts wouldn't arise, such as in clothing or bakery in foods,” the statement read.

While Muslim groups supported Marks and Spencer’s original decision, some felt that the incident had been blown out of proportion.

“As far as we understand the matter, this story has received far more attention than it deserves and is an isolated event,” Salman Farsi, media officer of the East London Mosque Trust told, also arguing that Jewish employees would also be exempt from selling pork under the company’s policy.

“We respect Marks & Spencer as a retailer that allows its employees to observe their religious values,” Farsi said.

The policy of Marks and Spencer, founded in 1884 and a cornerstone of British retail, has brought into focus the societal and cultural challenges that accompany a rising Muslim population within Europe, and specifically the United Kingdom. According to national statistics, the Muslim population rose from 1.5 million to 2.7 million between 2001 and 2011, an increase from 3 percent to 4.8 percent of the overall population.

The rise in Islamic presence in Britain has been a fiery problem within the United Kingdom, brought sharply into focus by the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London in 2005, and a number of incidents since then. Most recently, the brutal butchering of a British soldier near London by two Islamic extremists in May raised further questions about Muslim integration and the potential clash between Islamic and traditional British culture.

The increased Islamic presence has also led to the establishment of the far-right street protest movement, the English Defense League, founded to “fight the rise of Islamic extremism.” The group has been associated with a number of riots and violent incidents across the United Kingdom since their inception in 2009.

Adam Shaw can be contacted here.