Challenges for Britain’s new home secretary Sajid Javid
Sajid Javid takes over the home office in the aftermath of the disastrous and shameful Windrush scandal
Sajid Javid’s appointment as Britain’s new home secretary is a milestone, not only because of his humble beginnings—his father was a bus driver (something he shares with London mayor Sadiq Khan), but because he is the first person from an ethnic minority to hold the post.
Javid was born to Pakistani parents. In a Britain that has faced terror attacks, in many of which British citizens who happen to be Muslims have been involved, his appointment is as remarkable as appointing a Northern Irish Catholic as home secretary during the Troubles, as the period of violence in Northern Ireland was known, when bombs used to go off in British cities, a prime minister was nearly assassinated, and, in some cases, British diplomats abroad were killed (including one in Mumbai in 1984).
British intelligence services claim to have thwarted several plots involving Muslim extremists in Britain in recent years. Last year, Manchester and London saw terror attacks, and, in 2005, suicide bombers hit London’s public transport network, killing more than 50 people. If there was any rationale to those attacks, it was supposed to be in response to British military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as British politicians strenuously stressed that Britain is not at war with Muslims.
Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens is complex: It celebrates athlete Mo Farah, dancer Akram Khan, British bake-off winner Nadiya Hussain, and has more than a dozen elected Muslim parliamentarians. But many also see the relationship only through headline-grabbing terrorist attacks, extremist sermons in the controversial East London and Finsbury Park mosques, and images of young Muslims, including teenage girls, going to Syria to join IS as warriors or their wives. Far more British Muslims do none of that. Britain fails to see that while it speaks loudly of its values— rule of law, tolerance, democracy, and fair play—its conduct often runs contrary to those values.
The home secretary has to uphold the rule of law, keep the country safe, and control the number of immigrants. Can Javid overcome the immigrant community’s alienation? Or is he a “coconut”, brown-outside-white-inside, with right-wing nationalists eagerly waiting for him to slip up and confirm their prejudice?
Javid’s job will not be easy. As Kamila Shamsie shows in her extraordinarily perceptive novel Home Fire (shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year), every step of a Muslim home secretary will be scrutinized. Her novel draws on the Sophocles tragedy, Antigone. In the play, two brothers die on the opposite sides of a civil war. The new ruler, Creon, decides that Eteocles is to be buried with honour as he was on the right side; Polyneices is to be humiliated without a burial, as he had betrayed Thebes. Antigone, the fiancée of Creon’s son, challenges the edict; she wants to bury her brother Polyneices. Which honour is more important, the family’s or the nation’s?
Shamsie’s novel brilliantly raises those questions through the story of Isma, Anika, and their brother Parvaiz, who joins IS in Raqqa. When he dies, the home secretary Karamat Lone—the first British Muslim home secretary—must decide whether to let his body return home for burial. Parvaiz has been stripped of his citizenship, he can’t return, Lone rules; Anika, who has been in a relationship with Lone’s son, wants to bring Parvaiz home. Lone is a rising star among the Tories, who was “lionised for his truth-telling, his passion, the fearlessness with which he was willing to take on both the anti-migrant attitudes of his own party and the isolationist culture of the community he’d grown up in,” Shamsie writes. What will he do? While fiction, her novel acutely analyses the pressure a politician like Lone faces.
Britain believes that the way it understands its values like fair play are sufficient to win the immigrants’ confidence. But it misses a crucial point: The new arrivals bring not only their cuisine, but also their memories—of slavery, indentured labour, famines, and exploitation. Britain almost never talks about that history, and looks with puzzled annoyance at Indians and Pakistanis cheering their own cricket teams, and not the English side. The answer, as Shamsie said at a literary festival on Sunday, lies in the look of the English team. British Pakistanis cheered the English side once they saw cricketers like Moeen Ali turning out for the team.
What will they make of Javid? It will depend on what he does. Javid takes over the home office in the aftermath of the disastrous and shameful Windrush scandal, where state incompetence and callousness ruined the lives of many British persons of Caribbean origin. They had come in the 1950s on the ship Empire Windrush to the UK to work, responding to British invitation. Decades later, they were asked to prove why they were in Britain. Many were forcibly expelled. Amber Rudd, Javid’s predecessor, resigned after it was revealed that she misled Parliament.
Javid has to manage a deeply disliked and discriminatory immigration system. The brown man’s burden is heavy today, 50 years after Enoch Powell’s dreadful speech predicting that if immigration continued unchecked, there would be rivers of blood. Powell was citing Virgil in Aeneid, who was speaking of Rome. Shamsie draws our attention to an ancient Greek tragedy to make sense of the present and prevent the recurrence of the past in our time.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi