LONDON — Britain's leader says Muslim women must improve their English to better integrate into British society, arguing that improved national cohesion is the best antidote to extremism.
Prime Minster David Cameron on Monday pledged to fund English language classes for Muslim women immigrants, and warned some could be deported if they fail to reach certain standards. The 20-million-pound ($28.5 million) fund will help tens of thousands of women facing social isolation and discrimination and emphasize that Britain has expectations for those who want to live in the country, Cameron said.
"I think it's quite right to say to people who come to our country that there are many rights that you have here — it's a fantastic country to live in — but there are also obligations that we should put on people who come to our country, and chief amongst them should be obligations to learn English because then you can integrate, you can take advantage of the opportunities here and you can help us to build the strong country that we want," Cameron said.
Britain already requires prospective spouses to demonstrate English language skills to roughly that of a child starting primary school. Under Cameron's plan, spouses would have to improve that ability to a higher standard after five years —or face deportation.
But the British leader faced an immediate backlash from critics — including some within his own party — who challenged his decision to link language abilities to extremism. Sayeeda Warsi, a one-time member of Cameron's cabinet, said that while the money was welcome, the proposal had been announced badly.
"This lazy and misguided linking, and what I saw once again as stereotyping of British Muslim communities, I felt took away from what was a positive announcement," Warsi told the BBC. "My parents came to this country with very little English — my mum's English still isn't great, even though she has been to English language classes."
She said the government should be telling women that it will give them an opportunity to learn, rather than warning they could be sent back to their native countries.
"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," she said.
The program aimed at women is meant to end what Cameron called the "passive tolerance" of discriminatory practices and to challenge the "backward attitudes" of a minority of men. He said some 190,000 Muslim women in England speak little or no English.
Though Cameron acknowledged that problems of forced gender segregation and social isolation are not unique to Muslim communities, he did not mention other groups.
Britain is not the only European country that requires prospective spouses to demonstrate language proficiency, though programs differ. Germany adopted regulations for prospective immigrants in 2007 with tough tests that favor those who can afford classes. Austria and the Netherlands also have similar tests.
Cameron suggested the proposal reflects the challenge the country's leaders face in trying to defuse the appeal that the Islamic State group holds for many young Britons. Some 800 British citizens have managed to enter Syria in the last four years while another 600 have been caught trying to get there.
Parents who are unable to speak English have less of a chance of preventing radicalization of their children, Cameron argued. Some of the young people who have traveled to Syria are native-born Brits whose parents were immigrants, but the ranks of jihadis also include converts and others and Muslim groups protested that they were being singled out.
"Mosques and Muslim civil society would be eager to play their part by hosting English language classes, as many mosques do," said Shuja Shafi, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. "But the Prime Minister's aim to have English more widely spoken and for better integration falls at the first hurdle if he is to link it to security and single out Muslim women to illustrate his point."
Associated Press Writers Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Mike Corder in Amsterdam and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this story.