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".
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"?