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Why am I being told I’m a ‘sinner’ on my way to work?

An Islamic message carried on the departure boards at King’s Cross during Ramadan has sparked a backlash. I understand the need to promote diversity, says Ryan Coogan, but preaching to people at the most stressful moment of their day is counter-productive

Wednesday 20 March 2024 15:05 GMT
King’s Cross departures board is no place for a ‘hadith of the day’ – but simply wishing everyone a happy Ramadan probably would have sufficed
King’s Cross departures board is no place for a ‘hadith of the day’ – but simply wishing everyone a happy Ramadan probably would have sufficed (Getty)

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but is that really true? Generally speaking, when somebody has good intentions, they tend to put in some effort to ensure that their good intentions lead to good results. Surely the road to hell is paved with baffling, half-baked intentions that don’t really work out, and the intender then tries to defend them by claiming: “But you don’t understand! My intentions! They were so good!”

The recent decision by London’s King’s Cross station to display a “hadith [Islamic epithet] of the day” to celebrate Ramadan is one of those intentions that sounds good on paper, but whose execution probably could have used a few extra minutes in the oven before it could truly be considered “good”.

On Tuesday, a message appeared on the station’s customer display board – alongside that morning’s delayed trains – that read: “The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) [Peace Be Upon Him] said: All the sons of Adam are sinners but the best of the sinners are those who repent often.”

In truth, any Islamic scripture appearing in a public space was probably going to be a point of contention, because an embarrassingly large portion of the UK hasn’t evolved its thinking about people of non-Christian faiths since the first Crusade in 1096AD. But even I’ll admit that there is something extremely provocative about calling people “sinners” on their morning commute.

Reading through the rest of the hadiths, I wonder if the station’s criteria – which I imagine involved avoiding offending practitioners of other faiths by choosing scripture whose language was too prescriptive – limited them to only a handful, of which this was the best candidate. Surely if that was the case, maybe it’s worth dropping the idea altogether?

Might I suggest instead – and this is really just off the top of my head – “Happy Ramadan”? At least that would be in keeping with the festive message that, for a second year, is brightening up the grim stretch between Piccadilly and Leicester Square. Sure, GB News would probably still throw a fit, but they’re currently furious about Meghan Markle selling jam, so you were probably never going to win them over.

In truth though, I don’t know that a train station is the best place to display any religious messaging. God has no place there. As I type this, people are being evacuated from King’s Cross because it’s so overcrowded it has become a danger to public health. You look at all those stressed-out people and tell me that God exists.

Add in the fact that this specific message was calling commuters “sinners”, and no wonder people are upset. I know I’m a sinner. I am travelling on British public transport, the only explanation for which is that I have committed many grave sins and am now in hell. But there’s no need to be so aggro about it.

Back when I lived in Canterbury and my family was in Manchester, I would often have to travel through London to get there and back. I still have stress dreams about watching the board at Euston station, and then having about 30 seconds to get to my platform – always the furthest one from wherever I was standing, naturally – before the train pulled away without me. All this while I paid hundreds of pounds for the privilege, even with my student railcard.

I hear it’s worse now. Apparently, they’ve taken down the old departures board at Euston with an LED screen that now shows advertisements, meaning hundreds of people now have to gather around much smaller screens in the middle of the station concourse and hope they don’t miss their ride. It’s probably one of the few times that I’d advocate for prayer in a public space: “Please God, don’t make me have to shell out £80 and wait another two hours.”

I fully understand the impulse to promote diversity, especially in a climate when the world seems to be drifting further and further away from things like cultural and religious tolerance. Displaying a hadith during Ramadan is the kind of thing that sounds great in theory, as it normalises something that people are still, even in 2024, struggling to wrap their heads around.

But poking the bear at one of the most high-stress venues in one of the most high-stress areas in the country, at the most high-stress point of the day, is asking for disaster. It’s like promoting Pride by painting thousands of bees in LGBT+ colours and then releasing them in a police station.

Perhaps the road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions, it’s lined with railway tracks.

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