Sayeeda Warsi says that the media are “anti-Islamic”

. . . and the <em>Daily Express</em> and Rod Liddle prove her point.

Baroness Warsi, the Tory party chairman and minister without portfolio, has been keeping her head down due to the fallout from her interview with me in this week's New Statesman, in which she claimed that the Tories lost three seats at the general election through "fraud". She has also had a great deal of criticism and abuse levelled at her on the blogosphere and on Twitter by Labour supporters and others.

While I don't share her politics, I'd like to point out that I do have a soft spot for Warsi. Like Ken Clarke, she is a senior Tory who happens to be outspoken, down-to-earth, humorous and normal(-ish).

In the interview, she also had the guts to take on the Islamophobic reporting of the right-wing, Tory-supporting press. Here is another extract from the piece:

She is surprisingly frank and forthright about the rise of Islamophobia in Britain. Citing the conservative commentator and columnist Peter Oborne, who has written extensively about the demonisation of Muslim communities, she tells me that "when Peter says that anti-Islamic sentiment is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in Britain today, that's absolutely true". She adds: "If you have a pop at the British Muslim community in the media, first of all it will sell a few papers; second, it doesn't really matter; and third, it's fair game.

"If you go back historically – [and] I was looking at some Evening Standard headlines, where there were things written about the British Jewish community less than 100 years ago – they have kind of replaced one with the other."

It is a remarkable claim and she should be admired for making it. Few politicians have challenged the demonisation and denigration of Islam and Muslims by the mainstream media in recent years. Meanwhile, in contrast, rabbis such as Pete Tobias have drawn a comparison between the media's treatment of British Muslims now with the press phobia towards British Jews in the early years of the 20th century.

Tobias, writing on Comment Is Free in 2007, noted:

Just under 100 years ago, [the Evening Standard] ran a series entitled "Problem of the Alien", assuring its readers that the city was being "overrun by undesirables" who had set up "vast foreign areas" and were "a growing menace". They were referring, of course, to the Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, among them my great-grandparents.

How depressing that such bigotry, paranoia and hysteria still exist in the modern media – but, these days, it is Muslims, rather than Jews, black people or the Irish, who find themselves in the journalistic crosshairs. Hysterical fear-mongering about Islam has become the norm.

Take the ridiculous and offensive Express front-page headline on 18 September:

Muslim plot to kill the Pope

Can you imagine a headline that said "Jewish plot to kill . . ."? How can headline writers justify the gratuitous and provocative reference to the alleged plotters' faith or get away with implying that all Muslims were behind, or endorsed, the "plot"?

And, on 20 September, the day after all six of the Algerian street cleaners arrested by the Metropolitan Police on suspicion of plotting a terror attack against the Pope were released without charge, the Express relegated the story and the clarification to a single sentence on page 9:

Six men arrested and quizzed by counterterrorism police probing a plot in London to attack the Pope were all released without charge, Scotland Yard said yesterday.

No mention of the earlier, hysterical headline in the newspaper on Saturday, let alone an apology for its shoddy and seemingly Islamophobic coverage of the arrests.

Then there are the more subtle yet noxious examples of what Warsi and Oborne refer to as "anti-Islamic sentiment". Take the halal meat "scoop" in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday in recent weeks:

Britain goes halal . . . but no one tells the public

The papers claim that supermarkets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, pubs and famous sporting venues are "controversially serving up meat slaughtered in accordance with strict Islamic law to unwitting members of the public".

The Spectator's Rod Liddle, of "Islamophobia? Count me in" infamy, joined the chorus of voices condemning the alleged "imposition" of halal meat on an unsuspecting and animal-loving (but animal-eating!) British populace.

He writes, rather melodramatically, in this week's issue of the Spec:

[W]e shouldn't allow halal slaughter anywhere in Britain or allow halal-slaughtered meat into the country if we as a nation, through the various authorities, believe that it is unkind to the animals we eat. In the meantime, I will buy no meat from supermarkets.

I'm sure the likes of Terry Leahy and Justin King are heartbroken to hear the news of Liddle's grand "boycott" of their stores. Somehow, I suspect they'll survive. And, since Liddle's had trouble in the past dealing with facts, data and numbers, let me correct a glaring factual inaccuracy in his piece. He says:

Chicken and lamb bought from your local supermarket will most probably be halal-slaughtered – but this is also true of the meals you order from those untermensch staples such as Domino's Pizza, Pizza Hut, Nando's and Subway.

This is just not true: even the hyped-up reports in the Mail and Mail on Sunday don't make this extraordinary claim. According to the Mail on Sunday's own breathless reporter, Abul Taher (who has form when it comes to stories with dodgy headlines), in Nando's, for example, only "a small proportion of chicken in all 234 outlets is halal" and the chain has only 61 halal-only stores. As for Pizza Hut, all the Mail on Sunday could confirm is that "some chicken used in toppings is sourced from halal abattoirs abroad".

So it is a sweeping claim from Liddle, a generalisation too far. But what else do we expect from a self-professed Islamophobe and a journalist who was censured by the Press Complaints Commission for writing that the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London was carried out by young African-Caribbean men?

However, I have two fundamental objections to the halal meat story as a whole.

First, are we expected to believe that the Mail or the Mail on Sunday gives a damn about animal rights? I mean, really? When was the last time they had front-page scoops on the abuse of animals or the latest investigation of abattoirs by the RSPCA? Don't Mail columnists and commentators normally reserve rather harsh words ("deranged fanatics", to quote Richard Littlejohn) for animal rights activists? Does Rod Liddle often devote his Spectator columns to animal welfare issues?

And why such skewed coverage of the debate over animal slaughter? Both the Mail and the Spectator cite the 2003 report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which did, as Liddle points out, report that the halal method of slaughter resulted in "significant pain and distress" for the animals concerned. But there are other scientific studies that suggest the "equality or even possible superiority of religious slaughter to other methods of slaughter".

From Wikipedia:

In 1978, a study incorporating EEG (electroencephalograph) with electrodes surgically implanted on the skull of 17 sheep and 15 calves, and conducted by Wilhelm Schulze et al at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Germany concluded that "the slaughter in the form of a ritual cut is, if carried out properly, painless in sheep and calves according to EEG recordings and the missing defensive actions" [of the animals] and that, "for sheep, there were in part severe reactions both in bloodletting cut and the pain stimuli" when captive-bolt stunning (CBS) was used. This study is cited by the German Constitutional Court in its permitting of dhabiha slaughtering.

. . . the French Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fishing has published Asidcom's Bibliographical Report on Religious Slaughter and the Welfare of Animals, as a contribution within the framework of a meeting on animals and society organised in the first half of the year 2008. This report quotes scientific papers and French veterinary PhD [studies] that support the equality or even possible superiority of religious slaughter to other methods of slaughter. This report quotes in particular the PhD work of Dr Pouillaude, which concludes: "Religious slaughter would thus be a less stressing mode of slaughter. Conclusions of all the scientific experiments converge towards a firmly supported certainty: properly carried out, religious slaughter is the most humane way because it leads to less trauma to animals to be killed to be consumed for its meat".

(See the Wikipedia page for references to these reports/sources.)

Second, and perhaps crucially, if this hysteria over halal meat isn't a result of Islamophobia, how do Abul Taher, Rod Liddle et al explain their silence on the subject of kosher meat? The 2003 Farm Animal Welfare Council report condemned both halal and kosher methods of slaughter. Yet the original Mail on Sunday report on 19 September, despite referring to "ritually slaughtered meat" in the headline, went on to discuss only halal meat for the first 24 paragraphs before mentioning kosher meat – and that, too, in passing in the 25th paragraph:

Britain's Muslim community is exempt from regulations that require animals to be stunned before death, as is kosher meat prepared for the Jewish market.

Liddle, incidentally, mentions neither kosher meat nor the Jewish faith in his rant against halal meat, British Muslims and supermarkets.

So, why the double standards? Could it perhaps be because we no longer regard prejudice and fear-mongering against Jews or Jewish rituals and practices as acceptable, while Muslims, on the other hand, are, in the words of Baroness Warsi, "fair game"?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide