British PM David Cameron's anti-extremism efforts called worthy but tone-deaf

An offer of English-language lessons for Muslim women living in the U.K. could have been seen as empowering. But by linking the instruction to the fight against extremism, David Cameron's latest efforts came across as stigmatizing.

Issues relating to the Muslim community too often linked to extremism

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron meets women attending an English class after announcing his government would set up a new fund aimed at helping Muslim women improve their language abilities. But he drew criticism for linking their ability to speak English with the fight against extremism. (Oli Scarff/PA via Associated Press)

British Prime Minister David Cameron received a wave of criticism last Monday after announcing a $40-million fund to help female Muslim immigrants learn English.

The lessons, he argued, would help the women better integrate and throw off the stifling influence of a "minority" of Muslim men who exert "damaging control" over female relatives. 

"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 [ISIS]," Cameron told the BBC.

Cameron linking the ability to speak English with the fight against extremism proved problematic.

The Guardian newspaper — often critical of Cameron — published an editorial saying the lessons could have been seen as empowering but by linking them to extremism, Cameron sounded "as if he was once again scolding Muslims."

Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women's Network UK said the connection would only further stigmatize the Muslim community.

"A lot of people are very angry, outraged," she said. "We can discuss issues relating to the Muslim community without always having to connect it to extremism and radicalization."

'Struggle of our generation'

Such strong reaction is nothing new for Cameron. 

Over the past year, he has repeatedly stirred up angry responses from British Muslims while speaking about his government's plans to combat extremist ideology — a fight he has described as the "struggle of our generation."

Cameron has been accused of stigmatizing the Muslim community with some of his counter-extremism announcements. But his supporters say his ideas have made the U.K. a 'world leader' in tackling extremist narratives. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

It's not always the policies themselves fuelling the negative reaction, says Gohir, but rather the way they are communicated.

Just over a year ago, Cameron found himself on the defensive after a letter sent to Muslim community leaders by one of his government officials urged them to do more to fight extremism.

The letter — which came after deadly attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket — called on leaders to "more clearly than ever before" demonstrate what it meant to be a British Muslim and exercise their "important responsibility" in explaining "how faith in Islam can be part of British identity."

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) reacted angrily, arguing against the letter's tone and "the implication" that Muslims had not done enough to challenge terrorism.

Then in June, when Cameron warned some Muslim communities may "quietly condone" ISIS by not confronting early signs of extremism, he drew further criticism from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. 

Critics accused him of scapegoating the entire Muslim community by implying extremism was intrinsic within it. 

The Muslim council has even gone so far as to argue Cameron's official strategy to snuff out homegrown extremism, dubbed the "One Nation Counter-Extremism Strategy," has "McCarthyist undertones." 

'We are just as angry'​

Gohir says there is currently a high level of alienation among British Muslims, which she argues is partly the result of the government's statements and the fallout from recent events like the Paris attacks.

Police statistics released at the end of last year show hate crimes against Muslims in London had increased. And a survey of more than 6,000 British citizens — commissioned by the charity Islamic Relief and carried out last summer by YouGov, a U.K. research firm — showed that "terrorism" was at the top of the list when it came to words associated with Muslims.

British schoolgirls Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase, and Shamima Begum disappeared from East London in February 2015 and later surfaced in an ISIS-controlled area of Syria. They're just three of the estimated 700 British citizens who've travelled abroad to join extremist groups like ISIS. (London Metropolitan Police )

Gohir suggests that stigmatization could be reduced if the government reached out to the Muslim community more frequently without invoking the fight against extremism.

"The vast majority of Muslims are on the government's side," she said. "We are just as angry with these extremists. In fact, we suffer more because of them because we get the backlash."

'Right direction,' think-tank says

In spite of the criticism levelled against Cameron, Jonathan Russell, head of policy at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank in London, argues that the U.K. has become a world leader in countering extremist narratives under his direction.

"I think the British government is absolutely going in the right direction," Russell said. "Governments around the world can learn a lot from the British prime minister."

He points to Cameron's drive to safeguard young people through such policies as regulating religious schools and ensuring that anyone convicted of extremism is barred from working with children, along with a new government website designed to help teachers fight radicalization.

But Russell agrees the government may have a problem when it comes to delivering its message.

"Communicating policy is very often as important as the policy itself," he said. "The government has not always been very good at talking about counter-extremism, and it's been held back by that."

Importance of perception  

The threat posed by extremism is much-talked about in the U.K., not least because an estimated 700 British citizens have travelled abroad to join groups like ISIS. 

British militants like Mohammed Emwazi, the infamous Jihadi John, have also been the face of some of the group's most ominous propaganda videos.

Briton Mohammed Emwaz, known as Jihadi John, recently confirmed dead, was the masked man at the forefront of many ISIS propaganda videos. (Reuters)

And with the challenges posed by extremism only set to continue, the government's communication problem is one it's going to have to quickly solve, said Russell, so that it can work better with "those communities from whom we need buy-in."  

"The perception of government policy is crucial to its effectiveness," he said.  

And the government has a long way to go, according to Gohir. 

"We need to work better together and not sort of pitch it as 'us and them' because that's how it sounds at the moment," she said. "Many people just feel they're all being tarnished negatively with the same brush due to the criminality of a minority of extremists."


Ellen Mauro is a senior reporter based in Toronto. She was formerly posted in Washington, D.C. where she covered the Trump White House for CBC News. Previously, she was posted to CBC's London, U.K. bureau where she covered stories across Europe and Africa.


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