Wednesday 18 February 2009

Shelving the sacred

Here's a wonderful illustration of the knots that secular authorities can tie themselves in when they try to appease the sensibilities of religionists...

Muslims in Leicester claimed it was offensive for local libraries to display the Koran on lower shelves, since they believe their holy book should always be placed above 'commonplace things'.

So what did library officials do? Did they reply that libraries are neutral spaces in which books are treated as human creations rather than sacred objects, and that the only workable rationale for the shelving of books is the Dewey Decimal system? Did they argue that, if they were to give into this demand, there would be no end of it, with Hindus, Mormons and Scientologists all submitting their requests for how they wanted their precious texts displayed? 

No, they consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations, who, with their best multi-faith hats on, suggested that the best solution was to adopt a policy of placing all holy books on the top shelf. 

But that hasn't pleased everybody. Some Christians are upset that putting the Bible out of reach goes against the Reformation spirit of making God's Word easily accessible. (They might also have been put off by the popular connotations of 'top shelf' literature.) The ubiquitous Inayat Bunglawala has weighed in, arguing against a 'one size fits all' approach: in other words, if Muslims want the Koran to be displayed on a higher shelf, they should get their way, while the Bible should be placed lower down, if that's what Christians want.

Before the new policy was implemented in Leicester, it seems that some Muslims were going round libraries moving the Koran to higher shelves. OK, confession time. Some time ago, I heard that a high street chain - I forget which one, probably Smiths or Waterstones - had adopted a similar policy of only displaying the Koran on higher shelves (I think they've stopped it now, thank goodness). When I noticed this happening in our local branch, I admit there were one or two occasions when I took it on myself to - ahem - reverse the policy. Not that I've got anything against the Koran, compared to any other supposedly sacred text. I simply believed that, in a plural, secular society, a retail outlet should not surrender to the demands of one particular faith-group. Yes, folks, my secular sensibilities were well and truly offended, and like the shelf-stalking Muslims of Leicester, I was indulging in a bit of direct action as a protest...

Perhaps it was Borders I was thinking of. Interesting that they implemented the policy for 'the safety and security of our customers and employees'. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Managed to miss this one. My immediate thoughts: what what what what what. As you say: how could anyone think this could ever, ever work?

Good work in Borders :-)