George Grant was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Bradford West at the 2015 election.
There is undoubtedly something ironic about the poorly communicated way No. 10 delivered Monday’s announcement on the importance of speaking good English.
The Prime Minister’s decision to draw a connection between the “passive tolerance” of segregated communities, in which many women in particular speak little to no English, and the “slide towards radicalisation and extremism”, has been lambasted from many fronts.
On a superficial level, Cameron’s critics have a point. You need look no further than some of Islamic State’s disgusting propaganda videos to discover that many British extremists have a very good grasp of English indeed. Perhaps more tellingly, as at 2011 at least 30 per cent of those convicted of Islamism Related Offences (IROs) in the UK had at some point attended university or a higher education institute.
And yet the relationship between poor English and extremism is much broader and more complex than that. The truth is that the Prime Minister really should not be in the position of having to make such announcements at all. The security of its citizens is the first duty of government, but in the arena of domestic extremism almost everybody recognises that the government alone does not have it within its power to deal effectively with the problem.
One of the main reasons the government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy is treated with such suspicion – if not outright hostility – by many Muslims is because it’s just that: a government strategy. Likewise the much-maligned Quilliam Foundation, albeit founded and led by former Islamists, is widely loathed as nothing more than a government front.
In understanding what sits behind such attitudes we can move closer to understanding the true nature of this problem. In August 2008, whether by accident or design, MI5 leaked an operational briefing note on “understanding radicalisation and violent extremism in the UK”. The report argues that “key vulnerabilities” include “experiences on migration to the UK; involvement in criminality; travel overseas; failure to achieve; and religious naivety”, but goes on to conclude that “individuals who become involved in violent extremism in the UK have varied characteristics and backgrounds and are, on the whole, demographically unremarkable”.
Yet there is one very important characteristic common to all home-grown jihadists, namely an almost complete disassociation with, and absence of loyalty to, the wider country in which they live and its institutions. It is within this context that the problem of poor English language skills must be set. It is not so much the young men drawn to extremism who want for a good command of the English language, as it is their mothers. Whilst they go out into British society during the day, be that at school, with friends, or in the workplace, they often come home to a household that speaks a very different language. Literally.
The result, inadvertently, has been too many young Muslim men left feeling not quite sure where they sit; torn between two cultures and not feeling truly at home in either. It is in this context of conflicted loyalties that the allure of the extremist way of life, with all its cast-iron certainties, can start to rub-up that bit more brightly. This, certainly, has been the testimony of the many former Islamists I have spoken to over the years.
The segregation of many of our Muslim communities into geographical and cultural enclaves is real, and the Prime Minister is right that, with regards to spoken English, the problem is especially acute amongst women. Data from the 2011 census shows that over 22 per cent of Muslim women aged 16 or older living in England report they “cannot speak English well” or “cannot speak English” at all, compared with under 10 per cent of Muslim men.
And it should also be said that quite apart from anything else, this is a most pernicious problem for the women themselves. I need no lessons from anybody about the enthusiasm amongst vast swathes of our Muslim communities for democracy: I saw it day-after-day standing as the Conservatives’ Parliamentary Candidate for Bradford West at the General Election. The only thing is, it was the sort of democracy your great-grandfather might have practiced: the town-hall meetings; the fiery speeches; tea and biscuits served with absolutely everything. And almost no women. On the occasions women did attend a meeting, they were always in a significant minority and almost always seated separately.
The place where women were to be reliably found in the run-up to polling day was in the home. It was here I encountered several with only a passing grasp of English, or none at all, and the near-impossibility of their engaging meaningfully with the world outside their immediate community – let alone me in their house – was abundantly clear. Come 7th May it was pretty obvious these women would be instructed which X to put in which box on the polling card, if they had not already done so several weeks earlier via postal vote. This was, and is, an outrageously undemocratic state of affairs, as well as being terribly unfair on the women themselves.
Be it politically, socially or economically, there is simply no way an individual living in this country today can truly empower themselves without a sound grasp of the English language.
None of this is to detract from the tremendous positive spirit that exists in our Muslim communities, the majority of whom do enthusiastically sign-up to what the Prime Minister calls “British values”. Yet all the goodwill in the world cannot be used as an excuse to sweep these problems under the rug.
The Prime Minister was quite right to draw attention to the link between poor English-language skills, segregation and radicalisation. And although the £20 million language tuition fund that came with Monday’s announcement will not on its own solve the problem, the Government deserves our support in directing its attention and resources towards a problem that is costing this country a great deal more than just money.