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A society at peace with itself must be our goal

The policy lasted just as long as it took outraged customers to take to Twitter and Facebook.

The customers are always right, and never more so than in the pre-Christmas rush when they can be expected to part with record amounts in a Food Hall where panic buying is a long standing festive tradition.

And, in truth, it seemed a perverse brand of sensitivity for someone in Marks & Sparks to advise a London branch shopper that the Muslim staffer couldn't put alcoholic or pork items through their checkout as it would breach their religious code. The moment when your biggest shop of the year is about to hit the till is not the moment to be advised to join the back of an adjoining queue.

Several things strike me as odd about this episode. For starters a career in a supermarket food hall hardly seems the most logical choice for anyone with strong views about what the world should eat and drink. If the normal conditions or employment couldn't be complied with then the worker in question should have been deployed elsewhere in the company. Or advised to seek work in a different environment.

But this relatively minor incident is emblematic of the tensions in multi-culturalism. Adherence to a faith has always seemed to me a private matter; a contract between a person and whatever deity or philosophy they follow. That contract will govern their personal behaviour; the question is whether or not it should be allowed to impinge on anyone else's lifestyle choices.

And, for that matter, whether the ways of the secular world should be allowed to impinge on those personal choices. The Christian community was much exercised by some companies operating a ban on overt faith symbols such as crosses worn in the workplace; in which instances you hope for a belated outbreak of common sense. It's not an unreasonable rule to ban jewellery, faith based or otherwise, in someone operating in a highly personal hospital environment with patient contact and the need for high standards of hygiene.

Conversely it's difficult to imagine the operative at the airline check in desk leaping over it to strangle passengers with their necklace. Nevertheless it's not just the faithful who have rights as well as obligations. This is the season when an archbishop or two is wont to bemoan the threat to Christianity. I'd like similar respect accorded to secularism, or, at least to the premise that our particular brand of governance is a democracy and not a theocracy.

In recent times this has been a particularly thorny issue with our Muslim citizenry, and not just in terms of dress code, which again seems to me an entirely personal choice unless and until it interferes with the ability to interact with other human beings in workplace or courtroom; or because the dress code in question has been the result of patriarchal dictum.

And there's no shortage of that latter commodity across the religious spectrum. Male scholars of all persuasions are wont to take strictures from another age and wholly different societies, embellish them with a hefty dose of misogyny and present them as tablets of stone from on high: the word of their prophet or god. It's that manipulation and distortion of teachings that leads, further down the line, to bans on female education or demands for segregation.

As many prominent Muslims have pointed out, the recent suggestion that visiting university lecturers should be permitted to insist on segregated audiences in a publicly funded public space is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge indeed.

However the added ingredient when criticising unacceptable behaviour from British Muslims is the charge of racism. And there are enough instances of prejudice in contemporary society to make this charge entirely plausible. The heartbroken sister of British surgeon Abbas Khan, who died in a Syrian prison, is convinced that the Foreign and Commonwealth office would have made more urgent representations on behalf of a non Muslim family. Who knows if that charge is fair?

But it illustrates how far we have to go in building a society largely at peace with itself and all its component ethnicities.

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Food and drink

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