Tuesday, 02 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar
A SUPERMARKET chain in the United Kingdom recently adopted a policy that allows its Muslim employees to refuse to ring up sales of alcohol by having a non-Muslim clerk stand in to scan the items.
When a customer comes through the queue with bottles or cans of alcohol, the Muslim clerk simply raises his hand and another clerk steps in to make the sale. After the sale is completed, the substitute then leaves and the Muslim returns to his duties. This is a noble effort by supermarket management to be sensitive to Islamic religious practices and to accommodate its employees. But immigrant Muslims are sending the wrong message in their over-enthusiasm to follow Islam.
I am here in the United Kingdom to pursue my doctorate degree. I've only been here for two weeks and I have seen many Muslims going about their daily lives. Many appear to have adapted to their new environment very well. I admire the young women especially who maintain a respectful presence, wear their hijab and remain Muslims in every way.
Others, I'm afraid, have isolated themselves in their faith. During an orientation session one morning I was surprised to find a young woman wearing an abaya and niqab. I was surprised to see this because while I wear the same thing while home in Jeddah, I don't wear it here. This young woman is isolating herself from her fellow students and even the professors and tutors who are charged with her academic studies.
This is her right, of course, but I remember another orientation session where the speaker urged students to mingle with each other, make friends and learn what other cultures and religions have to offer. To study, study, study and not get out in the world will only short-change yourself in the end. A university education is not just about academics, especially for students from overseas. It's to learn of other cultures and religions. The experiences of life in a foreign country are almost as important as studying for a degree.
The lonely student in her abaya is a microcosm of life in the United Kingdom. And much like this student, the Muslim supermarket employees refusing to accept alcohol at their workstation also are isolating themselves and failing to adapt to their environment. To be clear, I am not a religious expert, but to my limited knowledge if a Muslim is not selling alcohol for their own profit, but as an employee for a business, there is nothing un-Islamic about this practice especially if he is in a bad need of this job.
As an employee of a company they have signed a contract to carry out the duties required by the employer. Obviously, if you are working as a clerk in a supermarket in a Western country you will be required to accept all purchases made at the store as well as stock shelves. By refusing, the employer is forced to accommodate the employee with special considerations not given to other workers.
To the credit of local mosque leaders in the United Kingdom, they have condemned the behavior of these Muslim supermarket employees, noting they are "over-enthusiastic" and are failing to assimilate into the culture they chose to live in. And yes, they choose to be here. They acquired a visa, brought their families, and many hope to become citizens. Then, why this over-zealous effort?
Not long ago there was some controversy in the United States when Muslim Somali taxi drivers refused to take passengers in their cabs from the airport if they were bringing alcohol with them. Many conservative American media commentators were outraged that immigrants failed to assimilate into American society. One American Muslim cleric pointed out that these newly-arrived Muslim immigrants were just trying to learn how to navigate through a new and very open society and had erred on the side of caution. That seems reasonable to me, but I wonder about Muslims who are educated and have been in the West long enough to know that you don't give up your Islamic principles simply by stocking alcohol on a supermarket shelf or scanning the price code at the checkout line.
These workers are not consuming or selling alcohol for profit. They chose to work for the employer and they should abide by the rules that everyone must follow.
As for my sister in the abaya, I know that she will sacrifice not a single thing as a Muslim if she wears something that is more colorful than a completely black abaya and niqab. It is what's in her heart and her relationship with God that counts.