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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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