David Cameron has been accused of stigmatizing Muslim women after he announced plans to help them learn English and warned migrant spouses who fail language tests could have to leave the UK. He also suggested the language classes could help Muslim women to learn English could help stop radicalization.

The prime minister said there would be a £20m fund to provide classes for all women struggling with English, but he highlighted 38,000 Muslim women who could not speak the language and 190,000 with limited skills in it.

Separately, there would be a new regime meaning those on a spousal visa would have to pass language tests after two and a half years in the country or face having to leave.

“After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them,” the prime minister said. “We will bring this in in October and it will apply to people who have come in on a spousal visa recently and they will be tested.”

Cameron stressed that he was not blaming those who could not speak English because “some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven’t wanted them to speak English”.

He said there was no causal link between radicalization and language skills but non-English speakers could be “more susceptible” to extremism. “If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh,” he told the BBC’s Today programe.

However, he was soon criticized for singling out Muslim women as the main group that needed help. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary , said Cameron risked “doing more harm than good” in a desire to grab headlines.

“His clumsy and simplistic approach to challenging extremism is unfairly stigmatizing a whole community. There is a real danger that it could end up driving further radicalization, rather than tackling it.” he said.

Meanwhile, Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said the announcement was “dog-whistle politics at its best”. “Linking women in the Muslim community who struggle with the English language to home-grown extremism only serves to isolate the very people Cameron says he is trying to help,” he added.

“Liberal Democrats support English language classes for anyone regardless of race, religion or gender and blocked these plans to cut funding for them in coalition.”

The prime minister was also criticized by Lady Warsi, the Tory peer and former party co-chairman, who said it was a good policy to encourage language skills to help people get a job, help with homework, manage finances, and get a driving license but questioned the link to counter-terrorism.

She said “evidence suggests gang culture, Islamophobia, [and] responses to foreign policy are greater drivers of radicalization” than failure to learn English.

This was echoed by Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network, who said “it should be directed at all communities, not just Muslims – and it shouldn’t be linked to radicalization”.

“People learning English is a good thing, so they know their rights and can participate in society. Cameron says he wants to empower Muslim women. But what about Muslim women who already speak English and still face barriers to participation?” she added.

Dr Ed Kessler, director of the Woolf Institute, which convened the recent commission on religion and belief in public life, criticized Cameron’s focus on Muslim women. “It is extremely unfortunate that the prime minister has chosen to focus solely on Muslim women to make an important point about the integration of immigrants,” he said.

“The commission explicitly called on the government to use sensitive and inclusive language when dealing with matters of faith, yet once again points that apply equally to immigrants from a wide variety of nationalities, backgrounds and religions – Iraqi Christians for example – have been used to associate all Muslims with difficulties associated with integration.

“As a result, rather than empowering women, the Muslim communities can be further alienated, making it harder rather than easier for Muslim women to seek help from public authorities.”

Sufia Alam, the women’s project manager of the east London Maryam centre, pointed out a wide discrepancy between Cameron’s suggestion that 22% of Muslim women have limited or no English, and the 2011 census, which said just 6% struggled significantly with the language. There had been deep cuts in English teaching provision for non-native speakers in the last parliament, she added. “My issue is that community facilities – especially those aimed at women – have faced significant cuts,” she said.

Others questioned Cameron’s logic in announcing the plans for language classes when the government cut £40m last year from funding for migrants wanting to learn English.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the extra £20m for language classes targeted at migrant women did not make up for the £160m reduction in funds available for teaching English to migrants in 2008-15.

“Recent spending cuts have had an impact on the number of people learning English in our further education colleges, with approximately 2,000 fewer women attending ESOL courses in the last year,” he said.

Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.

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