Friday, 22 January 2016

Cameron on Muslim women: shoddy and shameful

Compare and contrast:

'If you're not able to speak English, you're not able to integrate. You may find, therefore, that you have challenges understanding what your identity is and you could be more susceptible to the extremist message that comes from Daesh.' - David Cameron, speaking on the Today programme, 18 January.

'The Liberal Jewish synagogue in St John's Wood has appointed a French rabbi for the Gallic part of its congregation, which has grown rapidly.' - London Evening Standard, 19 January.

As you may have seen, Mr Cameron also said that immigrants who have been admitted to the UK on five-year spousal visas will be required to take a language proficiency test after two and a half years.  If they fail, 'they can't guarantee that they'll be able to stay. It is tough.'

So let's see if I've got this right. Muslim women who are immigrants -- which nearly half of them are not, having been born in the UK -- are at risk of deportation unless they learn English. French Jews who have settled in London, on the other hand, get a French rabbi, because, presumably, they find it difficult to follow services in English. But no one says anything about deporting them unless they learn to speak English.

I find this -- what's the polite word? -- puzzling.

Of course immigrants to the UK, wherever they come from, should learn to speak English. Just as the 300,000-400,000 Brits who have settled in Spain should learn to speak Spanish. It does nothing for social cohesion if minorities are unable to communicate with majorities.

But to suggest that Muslim women who for whatever reason cannot speak English are somehow 'susceptible' to the blandishments of jihadi zealots is -- I'm struggling for the polite word again -- surprising. Even the former chairman of the Conservative party, Sayeeda Warsi, who was the UK's first female Muslim cabinet minister, used words like 'lazy, misguided, and sloppy' to describe the prime minister's linking of linguistic shortcomings and potential terrorist sympathies.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, of the Centre of Islamic Studies at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: 'You don’t assist marginalised women by criminalising them ... Conflating Muslim women with immigrants, and immigrant Muslim women with extremism, is not simply factually wrong but morally irresponsible. And to link the "isolation" of some Muslim women to extremism is to not simply isolate them further, but to entrench an implicit link between Muslim women and extremism.'

So the prime minister's remarks make no sense. First, because some of the most isolated Muslim women in the UK tend to be those who come from the Indian sub-continent, especially from the rural Sylhet region of Bangladesh. They are not very likely to drop everything to join IS in Syria.

And second, because threatening to deport them is hardly likely to reduce their 'susceptibility' to zealots preaching hatred, or to help their children feel comfortable growing up in the UK. Much more likely is that it will reinforce the impression that the government regards Muslims, whether born here or not, as some kind of alien presence. And that, of course, is exactly what IS claims. Not clever, Mr Cameron, not clever at all.

Community groups working with marginalised Muslim women agree that much more needs to be done to help integrate them fully into British society. According to Shaista Gohir of the Birmingham-based Muslim Women's Network UK: 'Learning English means women can engage with their children and schools, access local services, know their rights and engage with their neighbours.'

But she also argues that to tackle alienation effectively means more than just language lessons. The real issues, she says, are patriarchy and misogyny among Muslim men. 'It's not just among a few spouses stopping their wives learning English, it's among those running institutions like mosques and local councillors … These out-of-touch men are making decisions about women's lives, and these are the sorts of barriers that women face. That's the real problem for women, regardless of how good their English is.'

So if Mr Cameron is serious about wanting to encourage integration, he should be helping Muslim women's groups to tackle these much more difficult issues. Multi-culturalism and an acceptance of different cultural traditions should not be used as an excuse for the acceptance of oppression or discrimination. Refusing to allow a woman out of the house or to learn English in east London or in Birmingham is just as wrong as sexually harassing women on the streets of Cologne.

And I cannot think of a worse way to encourage Muslims -- men and women -- to feel that they are accepted as valuable members of a vibrant British society than by threatening to deport vulnerable women. Mr Cameron's remarks were crass, counter-productive, and damaging.

On the other hand, perhaps they will help persuade people who are suspicious of Muslims -- and yes, that includes the bigots and the racists -- that Mr Cameron is on their side. And that, as he gears up his campaign to keep the UK in the EU, may have been the point all along. It is shoddy, shameful politics.


Glenn Vleminckx (Ixelles, Brussels) said...

Once again Mr Lustig is remaining very polite, read "diplomatic". I can only add the word "discrimination".

By the way, if it comes to proficiency or nationality tests, I have met quite a number of UK citizens failing them.

Think again, Mr Cameron, and stop casing people in boxes. Your next move would not be introducing a mandatory golden crescent to be worn in public or would it?

Robbo said...

Dear Robin,
Congratulations on an excellent piece this week, I agree with every word. I do think government and other bodies should do more to help women - and, indeed others, to learn English. But I think forcing mandatory lessons and tests in the way described risks causing more harm than good.
Although I am cautious about accepting unlimited refugees from the Middle East and Africa - not least because we have an existing chronic housing shortage already, the stigmatisation proposed is un-British and probably won't work, either.
The real problem in this country is the housing crisis - get that sorted out and worries about immigration and jobs will largely fall away.

Unknown said...

Robin you may not be aware but coloured and politically unwanted immigrants sat an exam under the shameful White Australia policy. The wording of the legislation have the Govt a choice on the language used in the test but it was commonly in Gaelic. no wonder the last Aus PM (actually born in the UK) is so at home in Cameron's company.