Cameron finds new way to alienate Muslims

David Cameron alienating Britain's Muslim community by singling out Muslim women for English-proficiency tests, writes HA Hellyer.

British prime minister David Cameron has singled out Muslim women for language-proficiency tests. (Matt Dunham / AP)
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This week, David Cameron, the British prime minister, suggested that Muslim women who had acquired temporary residence in the United Kingdom could face deportation if they fail to learn English sufficiently. Moreover, he suggested that poor English skills could make people more vulnerable to radicalisation.

His government has now launched a £20m (Dh104m) fund for women in the UK to learn English – but, alas, Mr Cameron’s policy has already become shrouded in controversy.

Years ago, a number of political figures on the right-wing of the British political spectrum argued that “immigrants need to learn English” to fit into the UK. The framing of the argument was rather odd. According to the then government’s don of race relations, Trevor Phillips, the problem wasn’t that migrants did not want to learn English. Rather English language instruction was found wanting.

During the years of the recent coalition government under Mr Cameron, English-language instruction for migrants was cut not once but twice. Is the issue around the English language and recent arrivals to the UK more about demand or supply?

It is clear that in certain parts of the country, there are sections of migrant communities that do not speak English sufficiently well. Different members of parliament have witnessed that – but Mr Cameron’s way of introducing this issue is to put it into the context of security.

Rather than noting this as a problem across many communities and not necessarily simply one of "Muslim women", Mr Cameron has accused Muslim communities in public discourse yet again.

As a result, rather predictably, a number of Muslim community figures have reacted angrily. If Mr Cameron was looking for further cooperation, this is probably not the way to begin.

It seems the only times that Muslims in the UK are to be raised in public discourse is through a security paradigm – either they are susceptible to terrorism, or they are fighting against terrorism.

It is too much to claim that this could drive further radicalisation, but this still is another type of intervention that is unlikely to engender confidence in the government from within Muslim communities.

It is also not true, based on the evidence. The likes of ISIL and Al Qaeda do not rely on particular languages – indeed, they both have highly sophisticated media outreach via the English language.

If the issue is around identity, that would seem to apply to second or third generation descendants of migrants, rather than recent arrivals – and their English is as fine as most Britons, as they go through the regular schooling options of the UK.

Certainly, the extra provision of English-language training is going to make some communities more resilient and competitive in the UK. To that end, the British government ought to be providing a lot more than £20m, if such an issue is genuinely recognised.

But to end up, even if unintended, specifically threatening Muslim women with deportation, rather than focusing on the provision of assistance to learn English, is, as the former Conservative minister, Sayeeda Warsi, points out, “a very unusual way of empowering and emboldening women”.

But there are other unusual ways in which Mr Cameron is approaching a number of issues relevant to this discussion. He also said: “I am not saying separate development or conservative religious practices directly cause extremism ... But they can help a young person’s slide towards radicalisation.”

Of course, Mr Cameron is correct – such things can help. But what security analysts have indicated many times over the past decade is that there is no single pathway to radicalisation.

Rather, there are many different routes – and in many cases, conservatism in religious communities has acted as a buffer against radicalisation. The likes of ISIL are, if nothing else, a radical reformation exercise – and conservatism can be a tremendous force against that.

Mr Cameron’s policies shouldn’t be seen as pushing Muslims in the UK into radicalisation, as some are quick to note – but in order for those policies to be more effective, his government is going to have to ask far more questions of how relevant their own messaging is at present. As it stands at the moment, there is certainly much room for improvement on message as well as substance.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer