Humanising the Home Office
07 May 2018
“Mr Javid’s top priority is to oversee the largely successful security effort against violent Islamic extremism, it is how he deals with the issue of immigration that will determine his future course.”
The Times leading article on Sajid Javid’s appointment to the post of Home Secretary is generally upbeat. Javid’s promotion is described in positive terms, right from the headline which uses the phrase ‘more compassionate’, aligns him with ‘overdue changes’ in the department, and suggests that the appointment ‘may well further his own political career’. The piece that follows gives a resumé of Javid’s biography, then spells out the issues that are of greatest priority for the Home Office and speculates on how he might perform.
‘The term Islamic carries an extremely negative discourse prosody, heavily associated with religious and political extremism, militancy, and terror’
Baker et al. (2013)
The leader writer has performed something of a sleight of hand in the editorial, and we must be attentive to its context and subtext. Representations of Islam and Muslims are the focus of this media monitoring project, and the word ‘Muslim’ appears nowhere in the piece, ‘Islamic’ only once. This is nested in the middle of the phrase ‘violent Islamic extremism’, which recurs frequently in media representations of Muslims and risks associating extremist beliefs or activities with religiously founded precepts. ‘Islamic’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘Islamist’, which linguists have noted is something of a journalistic safe harbour, whereby writers can align extremism (and in this case, violent extremism) with a political ideology espoused by a narrow band of Muslims rather than the religion itself (Baker et al. 2013). These scholars note, though, that journalists seldom explain this distinction in their articles, and many lay readers may not even register the difference.
At any rate, the Times has chosen the broader and therefore more problematic association: the violent extremism being discussed is Islamic. Moreover, the leader writer says it is Javid’s ‘top priority’. Strangely, this is the last we hear of it, as the issue the Times wants to discuss is immigration. Though the word ‘immigration’ doesn’t appear in the first four paragraphs, it features in the following three; the final paragraph does not include the word itself, but by discussing ‘ethnic minority communities already in the UK’ and ‘refuge for the politically oppressed’, this is still the theme with which we are working.
It is here that attention to context and subtext matter, for discussions about ‘immigration’ remain very much discussions about ‘Muslims’ as well. Hope Not Hate commissioned YouGov to poll people in Britain, and their recent report states: ‘concerns about immigration have increasingly become focused on Muslims and Islam in Britain, and integration is of increasing public salience.’ This is the subtext in discussions of immigration. The context, of course, is Brexit – a political act aimed in large part to curb immigration. If the much-vaunted targets of the Conservative government for reducing immigration were not feasible due to the practicalities of freedom of movement, then leaving the European Union allows the government more independence on that front.
The Times is sensitive to the costs of such a policy. The leader writer knows the reliance of ‘the NHS, the transport system and even most high street coffee chains’ on ‘a steady flow of immigrant labour’. And the impulse to bring net migration figures to five digits is characterised here as a ‘perceived need to assuage the Tory right’ rather than a useful or desirable policy. There is a superior tone to the editorial, as the writer seems to acknowledge fusty, xenophobic views whilst sitting above such sentiments. Javid is similarly pitched as above it all.
Our discourse analysis of this article must look for absences as well as presences, and perhaps the most striking one, given the Times’s history, is that Javid’s own relation to Islam is not mentioned. Javid characterises himself as from a Muslim family, ‘but I do not practice any religion.’ Calling him a Muslim MP or ‘the first Muslim Home Secretary’ would be inaccurate. Still, his entanglement with Islam is persistent: he was one of five MPs specifically targeted in the ‘Punish a Muslim’ hate campaign, exemplifying the contention of researchers that one can be involuntarily rendered a Muslim, with real-world effects (Meer 2008). Yet his complex relationship with the faith is not discussed in the article at all.
On the one hand, perhaps the leader writer doesn’t need to. Javid’s name already signifies Muslimness in immediate ways that don’t require unpacking. His name marks him as somehow different from, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Andrea Leadsom. Readers encountering the name will draw their own conclusions. We are told that Javid is ‘the first Briton from an Asian background’ in this role, and his biography references Rochdale and Pakistan, which also imply Muslimness. Finally, he is, like London’s first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, ‘the son of a bus driver’ – a phrase which has become something of a modern British cliché for Muslims who have risen above immigrant, working class roots.
On the other hand, the Times may have deliberately deflected attention from Javid’s Muslim heritage. The flattering tones of the leading article suggest the organisation has confidence he could be an appropriate, successful Conservative leader some day. Mindful of parts of their readership that might not be as open, perhaps, as the editorial board itself (as discussed above concerning immigration), they may have felt it prudent not to link Javid to Islam in an article that maintains ‘violent Islamic extremism’ as a top priority for the department.
In general, the article does not dwell on negative representations of Muslims in Britain, though if one reads between the lines, tensions are still present. The only front-line reference to the faith is the slippery phrase ‘violent Islamic extremism’, which is worrying for the assumptions it makes about the religious roots of extreme violent behaviour. It is not the focus of the article, however, and one might even be impressed that the Times would consider a politician of Muslim heritage to be suitable for party leadership. From an institutional newspaper identified with the belief in Britain as a Christian country (Poole 2002), that looks like progress.