Heard the one about KFC, alcoholic handwipes, and the Iraqi government minister?

Photo: Alamy

Kentucky Fried Chicken in Leicester has achieved the rare distinction of offending Muslims by doing something that they weren’t actually offended by. A branch of the takeaway chain that was part of a pilot scheme to offer halal chicken to Muslim customers blotted its copy book by withdrawing alcohol-based handwipes in case they violated Islamic principles.

But when a local KFC diner, Graham Noakes, complained about the ban earlier earlier this week to the Leicester Mercury, Muslim leaders were baffled. They made it clear that their only problem with alcohol was drinking it, and there was no edict in place against using it for hygiene or medicinal purposes. What they were mildly offended by, though, was KFC’s assumption that they would find such a minor thing offensive in the first place.

As Suleman Nagdi, of the Federation of Muslim Organisations, put it: “We have all the bigots coming out and saying ‘there you go again, the Muslims are demanding something’, when it is not the case that we are demanding anything.”

It’s nice to see Muslim leaders acting as the voice of common sense in this kind of “religious sensitives” case, which is far from the first of its kind. A while back, there was a similar row when a hospital removed Gideon Bibles over fears they would offend followers of other religions.

But it also gives me an excuse to tell an amusing tale about a Muslim leader who was indeed offended by alcoholic handwipes. And before anyone takes offence, don’t worry, this story come to me from a Muslim friend of mine, who found the whole thing very funny indeed.

Our story begins in Iraq in 2004, where my friend was working as a deputy minister in the new Iraqi government. He was not, I should admit, a particularly observant Muslim. The first time we met for lunch in one of Baghdad’s few licensed restaurants, we had an eight-pint, all-afternoon-and-into-the-early-evening bender, which ended up with his baffled bodyguard entourage driving us both home somewhat plastered.

I digress. The reason we had got to know each other was that the minister concerned was particularly worried about the ongoing “Islamisation” of Iraq at the time, with religious zealots increasingly gaining control of different ministries. Among them was his own boss, a dour Shia who he found it very difficult to work with, and who was also less-than-convivial company when the pair went on ministerial business together.

My friend’s patience was stretched to the limit during a visit to Vienna one week – their first trip out of the Middle East in months, and a fine opportunity, in my friend’s view anyway, to sample some fine European cuisine.

Alas, when the pair headed out to dine that evening, his boss revealed that he was unwilling to eat in any restaurant that even served alcohol. Which, as they found out after inquring at numerous different eateries, meant pretty much everywhere in Vienna.

Instead, after an hour or so of roaming the streets, they ended up in McDonald’s, which was the only place they could find that was “dry”. My pal spent the rest of the evening chewing disconsolately on a Big Mac, plotting his revenge.

On the plane on the way home, he finally got his chance. After the in-flight meal, when his boss opened the complimentary packet of alcoholic wipes and dabbed it around his face and hands, my friend feigned a disapproving stare.

“Minister, you are aware that those wipes contain alcohol, aren’t you?” he said.

His companion looked at him in horror. “They do?”

“Most certainly. And frankly, minister, I am somewhat shocked to see you not only applying it to your hands, but rubbing it over your face as well.”

The tables duly turned, they carried on the journey in silence, parting company just a few months later, as I recall, in a reshuffle.

I’d like to be able to tell you that my friend then went on to become prime minister of Iraq, leading it towards a prosperous and democratic future, but of course it didn’t work out like that. Meanwhile, back at the KFC in Leicester, it seems they’ve put alcoholic handwipes back on the counters again, claiming – as firms usually do in these situations – that it was a mistake by a member of staff rather than company policy.

One question does still seem answered, though. If Kentucky Fried Chicken is so fingerlickin’ good, as the good Colonel Saunders says in the ad, why do you need handwipes in the first place?

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