Condescending Cameron's English-language plan plays into hands of IS

Condescending Cameron's English-language plan plays into hands of IS
Comment: Playing the school bully, the British prime minister gets it wrong once again, misses the point and reinforces social divisions exploited by extremist recruiters, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
21 Jan, 2016
Mind your language: The PM plans to teach English to British Muslim women [Getty]

David Cameron's announcement of a plan to help Muslim women learn English might sound reasonable, but the entire framing of it demonstrates the extent to which Islamophobia continues to shape the British government's relationship with Muslims. 

On the surface of things, this initiative seems to be progressive, given that Cameron's government had previously cut funding for English lessons for immigrants and made access to such aid considerably more difficult. 

However, the language used by the prime minister ought to leave little doubt about the kind of wrongheaded, dangerous narratives in which this policy has been couched. 

The plan itself only applies to Muslim women, which immediately singles this out as an apparently distinctive "Muslim" problem. 

This was sinisterly reinforced by Cameron's baffling attempt to link reading ability to radicalisation within the Muslim community - specifically to the phenomenon of British Muslims joining the Islamic State group. 

Despite Cameron's swift attempt to distance himself from saying that there was a "causal" link between lack of English skills and "radicalisation", he didn't back down from the idea that the two were in some way intertwined. 

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Cameron said there was "a connection to combating extremism" and further claimed that the initiative "would help people become more resilient against the messages of [IS]".  

This is a dangerously misleading statement. While a crisis of identity might play some role in fomenting the circumstances that lead British Muslims to joining entities such as IS, the phenomenon appears to be strikingly similar to the general manner in which people are pushed towards political extremes. 

Some 700 British Muslims have so far joined IS - a drop in the ocean when compared with the one million people who voted for the neo-fascist British National Party in 2009.

Cameron, following his predecessors Brown and Blair during the "war on terror" era, seeks to otherise Muslims and the phenomenon of Islamic extremism. The government wants to push the message that "extremism" within Muslim communities is somehow foreign and external to this society, contrasted with crude, imaginary and arbitrary notions of "Britishness".   

This is perfectly in line with Cameron's previous statements and actions on this subject, such as his Munich speech, during which he issued the now classical right-wing trope that radicalism was fostered by the failure of Muslims to integrate into his conception of British society and assimilate these apparent British values.

This narrative constructs simplistic answers to the question of "radicalisation", placing the onus squarely at the feet of the other, in this case, British Muslims. 

Muhammad Emwazi, aka 'Jihadi John'... could speak perfect English

The actual factors that lead to radicalisation are therefore ignored and, most dangerously, often reinforced.

The problem for Cameron is that the profiles of those who have joined IS point to the exact opposite of this narrative.  Take, for example, the notorious IS serial murderer Muhammad Emwazi aka "Jihadi John". 

Emwazi was born in Kuwait but raised and schooled in the UK from the age of six. He was from a distinctly middle class background, attending one of the top academies in England, and then completing an undergraduate degree. 

He could speak perfect English and worked in the tech industry. Emwazi was recognisable precisely because of his English accent. Whatever the reasons for Emwazi joining IS one can almost certainly say that it had nothing to do with a lack of language skills or, in terms of the superficial dichotomy of Islam vs Britishness, questions of "assimilation". 

After the 7/7 suicide bombings in London, many people perhaps thought and hoped that those responsible would declare their guilt via subtitles or heavily accented and broken English. 

But it was the broad Yorkshire accent of the Leeds-born-and-bred Mohamed Sidique Khan that dispassionately announced from beyond the grave that he was responsible for the attack. All of the bombers on that day were born in Britain and, for the best part of their lives, lived perfectly normal, "integrated" lives - they played cricket, went to parties and had girlfriends.

This is something that is truly disorienting for the conventional wisdom of "counter-terrorism", and these legion of experts that advise governments, Muslims from the UK - and Europe and, more generally, the West - who accept extremist ideologies come from within British society. 

They are not foreign, and their potential for "radicalisation" cannot be determined by their proximity to some criteria of "Britishness" or adherence to vague notions of "British values" - nor, indeed, can it be understood by the extent of their religiosity or their inability to speak English.  

Think of the case of Hasma Aitboulachen, the suicide bomber who was part of the IS-aligned terror cell responsible for the Paris attacks. 

What was striking about her was not her religiosity or conservatism, but rather the shock of her family and friends who described her as a non-observant Muslim, born and raised in France, who had lived most of her life without expressing more than a passing interest in Islam, describing her as a "party girl".

IS seemingly understands what Cameron does not - it's through this process of otherisation that potential recruits are made

In fact, if one thing has characterised the phenomenon of people from the West joining IS, it has been IS appealing to this lack of religiosity. In propaganda videos aimed at Western Muslims, the point of reference is more Lord of the Rings than the Quran and Hadith, or at least the former alluringly rendered by the latter.

Look at the infamous case of British jihadis purchasing the book Islam for Dummies before embarking on a journey to fight for IS. Or consider the fact that a British IS militant was observed on social media disparaging the perceived primitiveness of war-torn Syrian culture in contrast to his own Western standards.

IS seemingly understands what Cameron does not - it's through this process of otherisation that potential recruits are made. 

While it's far too easy to simply say that Islamophobia and racism in the West leads to "radicalisation", as opposed to it being one of a multitude of intersectional and contradictory contributing factors, the fact is that IS actively welcomes and cultivate the division of Muslims and non-Muslims in whatever form it takes.

Cameron could have chosen to speak of the real issues faced by Muslim women in this country, such as an increased susceptibility to racism and discrimination, or the fact that, under his government, unemployment among women has skyrocketed - something that is even worse among Muslim women in particular. 

Instead, Cameron singled Muslim women out. Not only did he immediately stigmatise them by linking them to "radicalisation" and IS, but he further enflamed tensions by actively bullying them with threats of deportation if they could not demonstrate any language improvement after six months of residency. And, obviously, the vast majority of Muslim women in the UK are not immigrants.

Most ironically, it's precisely this kind of otherising, divisive rhetoric from Cameron that plays right into the hands of those who wish to exploit social conflict and alienation for their own gains, whether that's IS or expressly Islamophobic far-right groups.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.