The popularity of news articles about Muslim cashiers refusing to serve customers buying alcohol is no accident. Part of the success owes to sensational headlines. And to the insular online networks built on the narratives of anti-Muslim ideologues and the far-right which help these stories find a larger audience.
On December 28, 2016, the Sun Online headlined their story: “Shopper slams Tesco after Muslim woman on checkout refused to serve him alcohol”. The MailOnline’s headline was even more sensational. It read: “Furious Tesco shopper is ordered to ‘go and join another queue’ by Muslim cashier who refused to sell him a bottle of wine because it was ‘against her religion'”.
Lee Saunders, a 35-year-old father-of three, was unable to buy a bottle of rosé wine at a kiosk checkout due to the “religious beliefs” of the cashier. A duty manager then completed the transaction on December 13.
On the same day, the author and screenwriter Hanif Kureshi, tweeted: “Cashier in Tesco refuse to serve me alcohol on religious grounds. Good to see supermarkets lining up with Daesh-“.
Cashier in Tesco refuse to serve me alcohol on religious grounds. Good to see supermarkets lining up with Daesh-
— Hanif Kureishi (@Hanifkureishi) December 13, 2016
Yet, the question remains: why did it take a little over two weeks for the story to appear online? It’s possible that Mr Saunders had waited for a reply from Tesco before approaching the Sun. But the promise of outrage in the headlines do not reflect the words of Mr Saunders. His comments are mainly directed at the store itself, not the individual staff member. He added that: “She apologised afterwards, but she’s been put in that position. It’s not entirely her fault to be fair.” Quite the departure from ‘furious Tesco shopper’.
David Upstone, a Tesco customer service executive to the board, told the Sun Online: “Our colleague works on the kiosk as alcohol is generally not purchased in this area.” He added that the colleague has been made aware that a customer should not have to queue again. And she can now request the help of a colleague if the situation arises again.
A Tesco spokesman told the Standard: “We take a pragmatic approach if a colleague raises concerns about a job they have been asked to do.”
This, however, did not stop the MailOnline story reaching 17k online shares. And reigniting the perpetual indignation of the far-right and anti-Muslim ideologues who often seek out such stories to confirm and reinforce their prejudices and anxieties.
A good example of this comes from the ‘Battle for Britain’ Facebook page. Having shared the MailOnline article on December 28, the Battle for Britain post gained more than 300 shares and over 600 comments. One such reply read: “I wont be shopping at Tesco again until they sort out the problem. British country NOT Muslim!” Other inchoate statements included: “Sack her we have had enough of these Muslims scum this is England” and “She should be sacked immediately If I did the same to a Muslim by refusing to serve them curry powder I’d be sacked”.
Britain First shared a plagiarised version of the story which gained over nine thousand shares. Allegations that Mr Saunders has expressed anti-Muslim views online have not been independently verified.
Nor does this story exist in a vacuum. Some stories are almost a decade old. In 2007, Muslim supermarket checkout staff at Sainsbury’s were allegedly given the ‘right to refuse’ to sell alcohol to customers. In principle, staff could raise their hand and allow a colleague to complete the transaction. A system which mirrors how underage checkout staff sometimes need the permission of their duty manager to sell alcohol. But the press only found an example of ‘at least one store’ in north London.
Sainsbury’s does not allow staff who do not consume pork or drink alcohol to refuse service to customers who wish to buy such products.
In 2013, Marks & Spencer apologised after a Muslim cashier refused to serve a customer trying to buy alcohol. The retailer endeavours to find more ‘suitable’ roles for staff who could not handle certain items because of their religious beliefs.
Speaking to the Telegraph, the unnamed customer said: “I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised. I’ve never come across that before.” Perhaps reflecting the rare nature of such incidents.
In a statement at the time, M&S confirmed that their push for inclusivity includes other religions. The Telegraph cites the examples of Christians requesting time off on Sundays and members of the Jewish faith requesting to not work on Saturdays.
Per the Jewish Chronicle, M&S also affords Jewish staff the right to not sell pig products or seafood to customers.
The scandal forced other supermarkets to clarify their position on this issue.
This 2013 story has recently been given new life on social media. Many recycling the myth of ‘Muslim favouritism,’ oblivious to the actual details of the M&S policy.
A year later, a branch of Tesco in Neasden Lane in London, apologised after a staff member refused to serve a customer seeking to buy ham and wine because ‘he was fasting for Ramadan’.
Nor is this approach for inclusivity just found in the United Kingdom. In 2015, Snopes debunked a rumour that the discount retailer Target was requesting that customers choose a different lane to buy pork or alcohol products to accommodate Muslim employees. The policy of Target, like M&S, is to reassign staff with religious objections to other roles away from tills. It did not stop anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists from spreading a doctored photo purporting to show this apparent and patently false example of ‘Muslim favouritism’.