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The British press and radicalisation


UK tabloid islamophobiaEven with the advent of social media and the increasing ease in which information can be shared peer-to-peer, the traditional media is still an essential route for informing the general public about important events and trends. Discussions of radicalisation have ebbed and flowed in the last couple of decades, but the media have still remained the primary source of information for the public on this important issue.

As part of research carried out in the research centre CASS (Corpus Approaches to Social Science), we have examined the representation of Muslims and Islam in the British press, with one strand of the project looking at how such representations have changed over time, between 1998 and 2014. Using a method called Corpus Based Discourse Analysis we have collected over 220 million words of newspaper data and subjected it to computational analyses to identify salient patterns of language. These patterns are then looked at closely by humans in order to interpret and explain them. This short report details some of our findings relating to articles about radicalisation in the press.

Muslims less likely to be labelled extremist

One pattern which the computer analysis identified was a trend away from labelling Muslims as extremist. Figure 1 below shows the percentage of times the word Muslim or Muslims is preceded or followed by one of the following words: extremist(s), fanatical, fanatic(s), firebrand(s), fundamentalist(s), hardline, hardliner(s), militant(s), radical(s) or separatist(s). For all newspapers examined, there have been reductions in these sorts of labels over time, with the proportion in 1998-2009 being 1 in 19 Muslims labelled with an extremist word, while it is 1 in 31 for 2010-2014. This could be seen as a positive move, in that the continued association of Muslim(s) and extremist words could present a skewed picture of ordinary Muslims to the British public.

Figure 1

We find a similar picture for the word Islamic, with the average number of mentions of one of these extremist words next to Islamic being 1 in 6 in 1998-2009 and 1 in 8 in 2010-2014, although one newspaper (The Times), does show a slight rise in this practice. The picture for the word Islam is somewhat different, however. Here the average number of mentions of an extreme word near Islam has actually increased slightly, from 1 in 25 to 1 in 21. The practice has become noticeably more common in the Daily Express, although most newspapers have shown increases. Only the Mirror and the Daily Telegraph show a move away from this practice.

British_newspapersCollectively, what this suggests is that there has been a noticeable decrease in Muslims being labelled directly as extremist, although the data for the abstract terms Islamic and Islam suggest that the religion itself is still continuing to be referred to as extremist. The labelling of extremism appears to have become less personalised in other words – being more clearly associated with the religion rather than the people. The following excerpt shows how references to extremism are associated with the abstract concept of the religion rather than the people.

Radical Islam is a growing canker in our midst and unless the Government and the police develop a backbone and take more positive action to put an end to the activities of these people then things will only get worse. It is even more important that the wider Muslim community, the vast majority of whom are decent, law-abiding and loyal to this country, become more active in stopping the spread of extremist Islam. (The Express, November 2010).

It could be argued that the continued references to ‘radical Islam’ are simply a more subtle way of referring to individuals, without naming them. A different perspective is that frequent mentions of ‘radical Islam’ are just as harmful as they label the entire religion as radical. We note that references to moderate Islam or moderate Muslims are less frequent in the corpus. For example, ratio of mentions of extreme Muslims to moderate Muslims in the British press was 9 to 1 in 1998-2009, although this figure was 5 to 1 in 2010-2014). Moderate Muslims are clearly not as newsworthy. References to Muslims who were described as somewhere in between moderate and extreme (e.g. with words like devout, faithful, pious), are about as rare as moderate Muslims and have actually fallen in mentions since 2009.

Greater concern about radicalisation

Another finding from our research was that there has been a statistically significant increase over time of the terms extremism, radicalised, radicalisation and grooming. Just as with terms like radical Islam, these words indirectly refer to people who are extreme, but they are more concerned with the concept of being extreme or the process of becoming extreme in itself.

Extremism is frequently associated with young people, especially young British people who are described as being at risk of becoming radicalised. The analysis of newspapers from 1998-2009 indicated that it was young British men who were most seen as at risk, although in 2010-2014, men are not associated as much with extremism – it has become a more gender-neutral risk. Preachers such as Anjem Choudary are seen as responsible for radicalisation, and particularly there are concerns about people becoming radicalised over the internet or while studying at university.

Although mosques, where firebrand imams sometimes preach, can contribute to the radicalisation of young Muslims, the main sources of fundamentalist propaganda are Islamist websites. (Daily Telegraph, 8 November 2006)

'Radicalisation is extremely serious and something we have to blame ourselves for,' says Ahmed. 'The leadership has not been effective in dealing with young people. We have left them to the mercy of extremist groups who have preyed on them at colleges and universities.' (The Observer, 7 December 2003)

After 2010, there are concerns about returning fighters from Syria who have become radicalised.

Of course jihadism arouses domestic alarm, particularly given the very real possibility of British Muslims returning radicalised and battle-hardened, and given the risk of them carrying out deadly attacks in the UK. (The Guardian, June 2014)

Radicalisation seen as a growing problem

To what extent is radicalisation seen as occurring within the UK? The overwhelming majority of references to radicalisation presented it as in existence and as a growing problem. A number of metaphors that were used in conjunction with radicalisation help to demonstrate this. First, a ‘water’ metaphor is used, to refer to radicalisation as a wave, a tide or an upsurge. There was also talk of needing to stem radicalisation. A second metaphor thus links radicalisation to plants: radicalisation is described as having taken root, or the roots of radicalisation need to be explained. Additionally, some authors refer to the seeds or fruits or radicalisation. A third metaphorical construction conceptualises radicalisation as something which is moving. So we are referred to its acceleration and its speed, we are told that it is snowballing, rapid or runaway, and action is needed in order to slow it down, curb, halt or forestall it. A related metaphor conceptualises radicalisation as a place, implying that there are paths to it or that certain actions can lead to it. Less frequent metaphors involve reference to heat – for example, by describing universities or prisons as hotbeds of radicalisation, or writing about factors which fuel radicalisation. While these metaphors are different, their utilisation is almost always used in ways to refer to a growing problem. A minority position was that radicalisation was rare or non-existent, although even this position was articulated by needing to address the received wisdom, as in the following article in The Guardian (7 October 2007), which quotes a Muslim television producer: ‘We did not find any evidence of this radicalisation that's supposed to be everywhere.’ At the other extreme is columnist Jan Moir, who writes of the trial of Omar Khyam, who was found guilty of plotting terror attacks in the UK, which the media referred to as the ‘fertiliser bomb plot’. Moir argues:

It has become horribly clear over recent years that a number of British-born Muslims, many of them from comfortable middle-class backgrounds, have somehow evolved into terrorists determined to perpetrate mass murder on their fellow citizens... Perhaps the most unsettling thing to emerge from the terror trial that ended this week is that Khyam was once just another bloke from the burbs, and that there are plenty more like him out there, full of hate and rage. (Daily Telegraph, 2 May 2007)

islamophobicheadlines-#2The use of the vague quantifications ‘a number of’, ‘many of them’, ‘plenty more like him out there’ help to evoke an impression of a widespread danger. While the metaphors described above tend to refer to radicalisation as being on the increase, most writers are not so explicit as Moir about the extent to which they perceive radicalisation to be occurring, but instead tend to present the concept as undoubtedly already in existence within UK Muslim communities, with phrases like ‘the fight against radicalisation’ (The Times, 18 July 2009), ‘the Home Office invited him to discuss radicalisation in Britain's Muslim communities’ (Daily Mail, 11 May 2008) and ‘Bringing an end to the radicalisation of young Muslims in Britain could take 30 years’ (The Independent, 22 October 2008).

The term often appears to imply binary states – between radicalised/not radicalised. People are regularly described as becoming radicalised e.g. going from not radical to completely radical, with little sense of gradience.

Explanations for radicalisation

However, journalists tend to disagree on the causes of this perceived radicalisation. Existing radical imams and preachers are widely believed to be responsible (although it is unclear how they became radical in the first place). However, other perspectives hold Tony Blair’s foreign policy to account.

Not only has the prime minister continually refused to accept a public inquiry, he has vociferously denied a link between western foreign policy and radicalisation. (The Guardian, 7 July 2006, letters)

This is particularly so in the left-leaning Guardian, although in citing this argument, right-leaning newspapers like the Daily Mail are able to cast Blair in a negative light.

The former head of the Royal Navy told a conference in London: 'Tony Blair would never accept that our foreign policy actually had any impact on radicalisation ... well that is clearly b*******. (Daily Mail, 28 January 2009)

Some newspapers cite economic deprivation, social alienation or other feelings of injustice:

In some of the northern towns, Oldham and Burnley, there is a lot of deprivation and unemployment - is that the breeding ground for radicalisation? (Daily Telegraph, 19 July 2004)

However, there are smaller numbers of writers who are critical of such positions, believing that they are simply excuses or that they do not justify radicalisation.

The doctrines of multiculturalism and minority rights, themselves the outcome of a systematic onslaught by the British elite against the country's own identity and values, have paralysed the establishment, which accordingly shies away from criticising any minority for fear of being labelled as bigoted.... Minority rights doctrine has produced a moral inversion, in which those doing wrong are excused if they belong to a "victim" group, while those at the receiving end of their behaviour are blamed simply because they belong to the "oppressive" majority. (The Times, Melanie Phillips, 6 June 2006)

It occurs to me that you might view the radicalisation of young Muslim men in the chip-shops of Britain not as a response to American foreign policy, or a backlash against the decadence of the West, but in terms of something outside politics: a playground craze - something that spreads like pogs, or happy-slapping, or Pokémon [sic]. (Daily Telegraph, 13 August 2005)

Any possible role that newspapers themselves have to play, for example, considering whether their representation of Muslims and Islam could contribute towards such radicalisation, tends to be unremarked upon. Finally, we note that increasingly over time, the influence of extremist Islam is given as the reason for radicalisation, as opposed to other reasons such as government policy, Islamophobia or economic deprivation. Between 1998-2009, extremist Islam was blamed for radicalisation about a third of the time a reason was mentioned, by 2014 this reason was referred to two thirds of the time.


In terms of what this means for Britain’s Muslim community the findings from this study are are mixed. While it is positive that the association of Muslims with extremism in press stories is down overall, the press still portrays a clear association of Islam with extremism, as well as a concern that radicalisation is increasing (and is largely the fault of extremist interpretations of Islam). This will undoubtedly be affected by the tragic events in Paris, as the identity of the attackers is probed and their ideological motivations discussed.

This essay is a summary of findings from a project commissioned by the charity MEND. A full report will be available shortly from the MEND website. Professor Paul Baker is Professor of English Language and Professor Tony McEnery is Distinguished Professor of English Language and Linguistics, both in the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University.

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