Yesterday a colleague passed me a print-out of a story that appeared in the super soar-away Sun last Friday entitled, “Muslims win toy pigs ban”. They did this because they wanted me to comment on it. Whilst this story was seemingly widely reported, thankfully it had gone under my radar on publication despite living in Dudley where the incident occurred. Later that day, my good friend Musab forwarded onto me a story on the BBC News website entitled, “Three Little Pigs ‘too offensive’”.
Both are the usual run of the mill affairs and so offer only a potted version of each.
Dudley Council deliver a box of pig shaped stress relieving toys – none of which had any porcine content whatsoever – to its benefits department during Ramadan.
A Muslim employee is apparently ‘offended’ by their being a toy pig.
Management get scared, panic and so ban all pigs including Winnie the Pooh (who is not a pig but is a teddy bear and so obviously some Sudanese members of staff were also working in the office !!!).
Result…rest of the staff tell the media that the ban is an example of ‘political correctness gone mad’.
A digital book entitled “Three Little Cowboy Builders” is entered into an annual awards competition organised by Becta, a government funded agency responsible for technology in schools and colleges.
Becta reject the book because “the use of pigs raises cultural issues…” and so “…could not recommend this product to the Muslim community”.
Its publishers Shoo-Fly speak about this being a “slap in the face” whilst asking whether schools would now no longer being using George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ due to there being pigs in the book.
Result…more people talking about this being political correctness gone mad, blah, blah, blah…
There appears to be something of an insatiable appetite for this type of story in the media. Just last week we had the Marks & Spencer employee who (allegedly) ‘refused’ to sell a book of children’s Bible stories. A month or so before that we had the Sainsbury’s initiative of allowing Muslim checkout staff to ‘opt-out’ of selling alcohol. All these would seem to hark back to the Daily Mail and Daily Express front page headlines that revelled in proclaiming that piggy banks, Christmas and even Jesus had been banned all because they apparently ‘offended’ Muslims. Since these last three stories were published however, all have been refuted and proven to be little more than mere speculation and exaggeration (see the GLA report that I contributed to, “The Search for Common Ground”). Nonetheless, the media and its audience just can’t get enough…
Working on the basis that these stories are true (or at least have a sniff of truth in them), I struggle to work out exactly what it is that ‘offends’ these Muslims in question. As far as I’m aware – and I am no scholar – there is no theological justification whatsoever for being ‘offended’, upset, distressed or perturbed by pigs and especially nothing that encourages an outright hatred of pigs, let alone the sight of a squidgy plastic one. Just because Muslims are are forbidden to eat something does not mean that forbidden equates to offending, upsetting, distressing and so on. Because of this, it would seem that when managers and their ilk ‘ban’ such things, they are far from removed from ‘respecting’ or ‘tolerating’ other’s beliefs. I say this because what they are apparently respecting and tolerating are not ‘religious’ beliefs but instead the personal whimsies and foibles of a few individuals. As such, when ‘council officials’ pander to such whims and fancies, they are failing to do their job properly in rigorously interrogating the ‘beliefs’ that they are allegedly protecting: something that is required of them by law.
In fact when people demand the banning of something – squidgy platic pigs for example – their actions, offence and upset seriously ridicules and trivialises their faith. In fact, such actions not only reduce faith to the lowest common denominator but begin to initiate a culture within even extremely diverse communities – such as the Muslim communities of Britain themselves – a growing intolerance for diverse ways of expressing cultural and individual identities. What then ensues in terms of what messages are communicated to the wider society is the perception that all Muslims are intolerant, non-accommodating and quite the ‘other’ from ‘us’.
The British Social Attitudes Survey published on Wednesday this week gives evidence to suggest that there has been an increase in racial prejudice since 2001, when only 25% of the British public described themselves in such a way. Today, this figure has risen to 30% (1 in 3 of the population). The primary factor identified for this rise is the impact and fallout of events such as 9/11 and 7/7. In other words, ‘racial’ prejudice has risen because of people’s prejudices against ‘Muslims’. As someone who works in equalities, this is particularly worrying because a third of people (36%) also think that equal opportunity measures for black and Asian people have “gone too far” and so are unwilling to support or even recognise that trying to right these wrongs is unnecessary.
With incidents such as these further reinforcing the stereotypes that already exist about Muslims at the same time as trivialising the religion of Islam itself, demanding the removal of Winnie the Pooh because he apparently ‘offends’ achieves nothing and is far from beneficial. Instead, such demands do little except to exacerbate the underlying tensions that are already present in today’s society. For me then it is difficult to balance the ‘offence’ that one person experiences with the potential consequential impact that such things might have on entire communities. Similarly I dislike the way in which such incidents assist the creation of ‘benchmarks’ for non-Muslims against which your ‘Muslim-ness’ is gauged, e.g. how offended you are as a Muslim by pig shaped stress relievers, Winnie the Pooh and so on.
If of course the stories are all untrue and the media are sensationalising things, then that’s a completely different story…