January 19, 2016 Abdul Haqq

Her Master’s Voice: Lazy, misguided and reckless!

In January, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, asserted that learning English was a solution to tackling segregation and the ‘lure’ of extremism. Focusing on the second aspect, the government – in what now typifies its continuing poorly researched and baseless approach – suggests that a lack of English equates to lower resilience to radicalisation among 22% of Muslim women in Britain.[1] Contrary to research data from a more renowned source that cites only 6% of Muslim women do not understand or speak the language, Cameron has opted for the more sensational, higher percentage.[2]

English language proficiency

On closer inspection of the proposed rules, these particular Muslim women will be expected to acquire language levels that accord with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages – CEFR. This framework was established to provide a general benchmark for foreign language speakers of English.[3] Summarised definitions of the learning levels these women are expected to acquire follow:

A1 – Basic user/Beginner:

(S/he) can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

A2 – Basic user/Elementary:

(S/he) can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters…

B1 – Independent user/Lower intermediate:

(S/he) can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can produce simple connected text on topics, which are familiar, or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Language experts confirm that each CEFR level can in fact be taught over a period of 100 hours; therefore, the government’s 5-year timescale is more than sufficient. However, proficiency levels and timescales are not the areas of contention and obfuscate more glaringly obvious problems with the government’s overarching agenda.

Her Master’s Voice: The Language of Terror?

Extremist propaganda in the UK has been articulated in very lucid and socially fashionable English since the early 90s. Reference need only be made to the street vernacular of Abdullah el Faisal,[4] Abu Hamza[5] and the more academically nuanced language of Omar Bakri during that period.[6] English was not, therefore, the avenue through which traditionally Urdu or Sylheti speaking women risked radicalisation. Instead, it is evident that those who have been radicalised are in contrast to the stereotype Cameron has singled out on this occasion. For example, Aqsa Mahmood[7] and Sally Jones[8] – both British Muslims – are violently radicalised supporters of Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). They are fluent, native English speakers to the extent that Aqsa Mahmood has been considered the poster girl and major influence behind a number of other radicalised young women fleeing to Syria.[9] Did the English language contribute towards their resilience to extremism? Apparently not.

Language vs. Culture

If the real objective of the government is for these targeted sections of Muslims to integrate, it should be transparent enough to admit this. After all, learning any language extends to cultural expressions and social norms. Over the past 13 years, I have worked abroad in the EFL field and possess the relevant knowledge and experience to understand this. This ‘new’ policy appears to be either a supplement to the heavily criticised and flawed Citizenship Test or will become its eventual replacement.[10] Relatively recent history illustrates the use of English as a strategic method of preserving cultural and national hegemony. The establishment of the British Council in 1934 is a classic example of this:

 ‘The early 1930s was a time of growing global instability and there were increasing threats to British prosperity, security and influence.  The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression of the early 1930s with a huge drop in international trade, falls in living standards, and high and persistent unemployment.

The balance of power was shifting and extreme ideologies were gaining ground. The October Revolution of 1917 had brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, while in 1922 Mussolini had taken charge of Italy. This was followed by the rise of Nazism in Germany, with Hitler coming to power in Berlin in January 1933. In Spain, the civil war that would bring Franco’s Falangists to power was shortly to begin. Across Europe and the wider world, Britain’s influence in trade and diplomacy was under significant challenge.

One of the ways that the government reacted to the growing threat to British interests was the creation of the British Council.’ [11]


A comprehensive strategy that addresses English language requirements on a societal level is what is actually needed; one that focuses on all communities, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Native speaking Britons should also be included in such a strategy – particularly in view of the demise of the language among youth today:

‘The next generation of Britons, we read, will be even less linguistically able than the present one. Our kids will be reduced to shouting slow pidgin English at foreigners. The Foreign Office has called a crisis meeting. University modern language departments are in despair.’[12]

 On this occasion, the government’s ill thought out strategy is not only lazy and misguided;[13] it is reckless.



[1] BBC News: ‘Muslim Women’s segregation in UK communities must end – Cameron’, 18th January 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-35338413

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/Source/Key_reference/Overview_CEFRscales_EN.pdf

[4] Damien Gayle: ‘Deported preacher of hate transmits terror rants to UK from sun-soaked Caribbean exile,’ Mailonline, 13th March 2012: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2114242/Abdullah-el-Faisal-Deported-preacher-transmits-terror-rants-UK-sun-soaked-exile.html

[5] BBC News: Radical cleric Abu Hamza jailed for life by US court,’ 9th January 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30754959

[6] Robert Mendick: Hate cleric Omar Bakri Muhammad preaches killing of women and children on Facebook,’ The Telegraph, 29th November 2014: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/11262996/Hate-cleric-Omar-Bakri-Muhammad-preaches-killing-of-women-and-children-on-Facebook.html

[7] Ashley Fantz: From Scottish teen to ISIS bride and recruiter: the Aqsa Mahmood story,’ CNN, 24th February 2015: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/23/world/scottish-teen-isis-recruiter/

[8] Josh Layton: ‘Jihadi Bride Sally Jones issues chilling attack threat and vows to return to the UK,’ Mirror, 26th October 2015: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jihadi-bride-sally-jones-issues-6705328

[9] Jessica Ware: Bethnal Green schoolgirls who flee to Syria ‘married to jihadi fighters’, Independent, 4th July 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bethnal-green-schoolgirls-who-fled-to-syria-married-to-jihadi-fighters-10365759.html

[10] The Huffington Post: UK Citizen Test For Foreign Nationals IS ‘Unfit For Purpose’, 17th March 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/03/17/british-citizenship-test-unfit_n_2896938.html

[11] British Council Official website: ‘History’: https://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation/history

[12] Daniel Hannan: ‘The decline in UK Language learning is a rational market correction’: The Telegraph, 18th August 2013: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100231520/the-decline-in-uk-language-learning-is-a-rational-market-response/

[13] BBC News: David Cameron’s Muslim women policy is ‘lazy and misguided,’ 18th January 2016: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-35345903


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