Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cameron’s illiterate proposals

Nafeez Ahmed pens an open letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron in response to the introduction of an English-language programme for British Muslims

Al-Ahram Weekly

Dear Prime Minister David Cameron,

It is with great regret that I write to you (again) about countering radicalisation in the UK, this time in relation to your bizarre conflation of people having difficulties speaking English with the threat of Islamist extremism.

In your recent article in the London Times newspaper setting out your proposals, you stated that your goal was to end forced gender segregation and stop women being treated as second-class citizens in Britain. You highlighted the all-too-real problems of forced marriages, female genital mutilation and extremism.

This is laudable and necessary, and the British government’s professed commitment to tackling such issues within and beyond Muslim communities is of course welcome. But your assumption that these are all part of the same continuum that can be tackled with a single “kill lots of birds with one giant stone” approach is deeply misguided.

In fact, you are fudging your figures. You claim that “some 190,000 British Muslim women, or 22 per cent, speak little or no English despite many having lived here for decades”.

I asked your press office to explain where they derived your figure from, and they sent me a link to a table. Analysis of the figures reveals some important facts whitewashed by your statements in the Times. Your statisticians appear to have derived their figure by arbitrarily excluding Muslim females aged between three and 15, while including those aged 65 and over.

If the exclusion of those aged three to 15 makes sense, due to their being too young to be relevant, surely including those aged 65-plus (who are past the age of retirement and likely to now be grandparents) would misleadingly inflate the figures by incorporating an age group too old to be relevant.

Ah yes, that’s what I thought you were doing. The statistical purpose of excluding the earlier age bracket can only be to ensure an accurate assessment of the scale of the problem in a way that applies to employability and parenthood. Since that appears to be the basis for excluding the younger generation, the same statistical rationale applies equally to those aged 65 and over. Hence, prime minister, a more realistic assessment is to look at the numbers for the age range between 16 and 65.

When we break down these figures, a far clearer picture emerges. The total number of Muslim women in the UK who cannot speak English well as their main language and aged between 16 and 24 is 10,405. A further 72,609 are aged 25 to 44, and 49,661 are aged 45 to 64. So that’s 132,675 Muslim women who do not speak English well.

As for those who cannot speak English at all, the number of 16-25 year-old girls in this predicament is 1,629. The total number aged between 25 and 44 who cannot speak English is 8,313, and the number between 45 and 64 is 12,816. The highest number is for Muslim women aged 65 and over, which is 15,280. That’s 22,758 Muslim women who do not speak English at all.

In total, there are 155,000 Muslim women between the ages of 16 and 65 — the relevant age bracket —  who cannot speak English well or at all. This is definitely a bad thing, prime minister. But why fudge your figures to inflate them that 40,000-odd extra, just to make the problem seem worse than it is?

And why ignore the fact that English-language illiteracy is not a Muslim problem, or even a migrant problem, but a very British problem, for which you and your government are directly responsible? Indeed, when we compare this to the problem of English-language illiteracy in wider British society, the English-language challenges affecting Muslims look, quite literally, puny.

The real crisis is the crisis of illiteracy in the UK, and this has little to do with being Muslim, as you try to claim based on fraudulent statistics, raising serious questions about the literacy and numeracy of yourself and other members of your cabinet (not to mention your civil servants — and the editors at the Times).

According to the UK National Literacy Trust, “16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as ‘functionally illiterate’. They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. Many areas of employment would not be open to them with this level of literacy and they may also struggle to support their children with reading and homework, or perform other everyday tasks.”

It gets worse. Out of these functionally illiterate Britons who can’t use English above the level of an 11-year-old, “around five per cent, or 1.7 million adults in England, have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.”

The real figures shows that only 9.5 per cent of Britain’s most functionally illiterate people at most happen to be Muslim and, according to my guesstimate, only 4.5 per cent are Muslim women.

So if you’re genuinely worried about people not being able to speak English, you might want to think about the disproportionate number of Britons who happen to be non-Muslim (not that their faith or lack of it is relevant) who cannot speak English properly.

Unfortunately, prime minister, you go on to compound this arithmetic sophistry with further stupidity, when you write: “There is also an important connection to extremism. I am not saying separate development or conservative religious practices directly cause extremism. That would be insulting to many who are devout and peace-loving. But they can help a young person’s slide towards radicalisation.”

Despite your caveat above, you claim that “conservative religious practices” — whatever that means — can “help” a young person slide into extremism and become a terrorist. There is simply no empirical evidence for this claim. In fact, empirical studies confirm that Muslims who are devout tend to be immune to extremist ideologies.

US experts like former CIA official Marc Sageman and anthropologist Scott Atran, who have examined the profiles of real jihadists, have shown that they largely come from secular households.

“Those drawn to jihadism are usually not particularly religious prior to their involvement with violence,” explains Akil Awan, a professor of political violence and terrorism at Royal Holloway University in London. “They are either raised in largely secular households or possess only a rudimentary grasp of their parental faith, which rarely extends to religious practice of any sort.”

Anne Alya, a terrorism expert at Curtin University in Australia and founding chair of People against Violent Extremism, a campaign group, similarly points out, “The fact is that the role of religion in radicalisation (and deradicalisation) is grossly overestimated. There is actually no empirical evidence to support the claim that religion (any religion) and ideology are the primary motivators of violent extremism. The revelation that wannabe foreign fighters prepared for battle by reading copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies, underscores this.” Your baseless conflation of English-language illiteracy, separatist communities and radicalisation is a cynical effort to appeal to the floating mass of British voters increasingly turning to the far-right politics of xenophobia.

In particular, to prove your point you invent a hypothetical jihadist — “the young boy growing up in Bradford. His parents came from a village in Pakistan. His mum can’t speak English and rarely leaves the home, so he finds it hard to communicate with her, and she doesn’t understand what is happening in his life.”

If this boy can’t communicate with his own mum, it’s not because of English proficiency, or lack of it — after all, she brought him up, and he must be multilingual, speaking Urdu at home, like his parents. Language isn’t the issue here — it’s identity.

And identity is affected by many other factors, which religious extremists prey on — foreign-policy grievances, rising anti-Muslim sentiment in wider Western society, and a sense of alienation from both one’s ethnic and mainstream culture. In this toxic mix, jihadist recruiters find a fertile playground to propagate their “us and them” vision of the world — and it is religious novices who tend to be most vulnerable, rather than those brought up with a strong attachment to an Islamic religious identity.

I’m particularly chagrined that you use all this number-fudging and fear-mongering to justify a policy of creeping Trumpification by saying, “If you don’t improve your fluency, that could affect your ability to stay in the UK.”

What you have done, prime minister, is to have abused your position of authority to broadcast a false and absurd image of an incoming swarm of dangerous Muslim women giving birth to potential jihadists who can only be stopped with extensive English-language lessons and the threat of deportation.

Do we need to tackle illiteracy in Britain among Muslims and migrants? Absolutely. But what about the millions of non-migrant, non-Muslim Britons who are functionally illiterate, some of whom go on to join groups like the far-right English Defence League?

Pointing fingers at minority groups on the basis of fraudulent statistics to evade responsibility for your own role in escalating Britain’s education crisis is a cheap political stunt, even for you.

I can understand your thinking, though — it’s a great way to buy yourself some credibility while people get angry as health, housing, social and other public services crumble under the weight of your economically illiterate austerity programme.


The writer is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his reporting in the UK Guardian newspaper.

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