Why David Cameron's English language requirement hits Muslim immigrants

Prime Minister David Cameron wants British immigrants on spousal visas to learn English, which he argues will defend against sexism and radicalization. 

Oli Scarff/ PA via AP
UK Prime Minister David Cameron talks with women attending an English language class at the Shantona Women's Centre in Leeds, England on January 18. Cameron has highlighted the need for immigrants, particularly women, to learn English, and suggested penalizing those who do not.

United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, who has pushed for "more muscular" British values as European countries grapple with increasing numbers of migrants and immigrants, has proposed requiring recent arrivals to learn English or risk losing their visa.

Under new rules Mr. Cameron outlines in a Sunday column for the Times of London, immigrants coming to the UK on a five-year spousal visa would need to take a language test half way through their stay, a move that the Prime Minister says will defend against sexism and religious radicalization.

"We can't let women be second-class citizens," Cameron writes, saying that 22 percent of British Muslim women struggle with English, which handicaps their ability to work, speak up for themselves, or be involved in community decision-making: 

Where in the world do you think the following things are happening? School governors’ meetings where male governors sit in the meeting room and the women have to sit out of sight in the corridor. Young women only allowed to leave their house in the company of a male relative....The answer, I’m sorry to say, is Britain.

Blaming "the racism of separate expectations" for tolerating lower rights for women among British Muslim communities, Cameron also linked English ability to radicalization, saying that a better understanding of English culture, news, and communication skills could insulate people against extremist rhetoric, and help parents monitor their children for radical sympathies. 

The prime minister's plan, which would go into effect in October, is supported by $28.5 million in funds to improve adult English education. Immigrants on a spousal visa — mostly women — would be required to achieve elementary English proficiency after two and a half years, and intermediate English after five. 

The language proposals come at a time when many European countries, initially welcoming to migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East, are questioning how to assimilate newcomers to a culture that often values gender equality more than their countries of origin.

New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne, Germany, where a large mob of young men, including migrants, allegedly assaulted and robed hundreds of women, have intensified calls for cultural adaptation, and even deportation.

Multiculturalism has "failed utterly," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2010, comments she echoed last month when she blamed it for creating "parallel societies," rather than integrated ones. Some German cities have begun introducing sex education and cultural lessons into young men's language lessons, which Scandinavian countries have pioneered, to help immigrants adapt to a culture with vastly different sexual mores. 

The United Kingdom has pledged to accept far fewer recent refugees than many continental European neighbors, however: 20,000 Syrians over five years. Germany, by comparison, accepted 57,000 Syrian asylum-seekers in 2015 alone

Some advocates for British Muslim women praised Cameron's plan, which he argued would force husbands to let their wives learn English and better assimilate to British culture. Sajda Mughal, the director of the JAN Trust, a London charity, told the BBC that Cameron's language funding was "heartening," and would help many of the Muslim women who attend the Trust's classes each week. Some cannot read or write in any language, she said. 

Many, however, questioned his statistics, and said immigrants' English level was higher than he portrayed, or that low English skills were a problem for all immigrants, not just Muslim ones.

Among Pakistani and Bangaldeshi British, for example, two of the UK's largest Muslim groups, only 6 percent say they struggle with English. According to 2011 census data, about 2 percent of the population in England and Wales cannot speak English well, although that number is as high as 10 percent in some heavily-immigrant urban neighborhoods. Yet the most common language other than English was Polish. 

Many Muslim leaders in the UK questioned whether language requirements would help women, or further punish them, and suggested that the rules could actually increase hostility within immigrant communities, as well as mainstream scapegoating of British Muslims. 

"I think to threaten women and say to them that 'unless you are of X standard we will send you back, even if you have children in the U.K. who are British and your spouse is British' is, for me, a very unusual way of empowering and emboldening women," Lady Sayeeda Warsi, a former Cabinet member, told the BBC. 

Cameron, who has made a push for education about British civic values such as tolerance and the rule of law, told BBC Radio 4 that the new regulations are "tough," but that immigrants share responsibility with the government for their own integration. "People coming to our country, they have responsibilities too," he told the Today program. 

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