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David Cameron is right, poor literacy does fuel radicalisation

By Madiha Walker

Published 29/01/2016

Urdu, Arabic and Swahili are not conduits for radicalisation, and neither is English is a silver bullet to extremism, writes Madiha Walker
Urdu, Arabic and Swahili are not conduits for radicalisation, and neither is English is a silver bullet to extremism, writes Madiha Walker

Writing in the Times and speaking on BBC Radio 4, David Cameron recently outlined what he believes to be the role and challenges facing Muslim women in the UK.

For the Prime Minister and Government, the key hindrances standing in the way of the emancipation of hundreds of thousands of British Muslim women are firmly set in a cultural-religious epidemic characterised by poor literacy, oppressive segregation and the face veil.

These obstacles, long unchallenged and wildly out of control, have given rise to a wave of Muslim women and their ‘’oppressive’’ husbands who simply do not understand the very essence of ‘Britishness’.

To address this void in understanding, the Government has been working tirelessly behind the scenes on its chef d'oeuvre, which it hopes will bring enlightenment to a very dark situation. So what was the Government’s main answer? Tackle the poor level of women's literacy within the Muslim community, which he puts at a staggering 22%!

On this point, one has to say bravo to Mr Cameron, he is absolutely right; the importance of English to immigrant women, be they Muslim or otherwise, is fundamental to integration and self-empowerment. To this end, any policy that supports enhanced literacy is positive.

However, the figure of 22% is problematic, as is the stated motivation of the new policy. To begin with, the 22% figure is accurate in so much as it is what you will discover in the national census. However, the devil is always in the detail. Those questioned in the census were offered three levels of literacy to choose from:

  • 1      Main language was English
     
  • 2      Main language was not English: Could speak English very well or well (‘Proficient ’)
     
  • 3      Main language was not English : Could not speak English well or at all (‘Non-proficient’)

Immigrants were thus asked to choose between ‘very well or well’ and ‘not… well or at all’. In my experience, many of the Muslim women immigrants who I know would place themselves somewhere between the two. It’s also worth noting that the vagueness of the two options solicits from the participant a very subjective reading of their meanings. One must also ask how someone who meets the ‘non-proficient’ criterion would be able to complete the census form at all?

On the motives behind the Prime Minister’s push, he would have us believe that greater literacy will assist in the fight against extremism; the rationale, I’m guessing, must be that mothers who speak English won’t raise extremists? This hypothesis is highly problematic.

First, the emphasis inherent to the characterisation is in reverse order; it should be shifted from largely ‘radicalised men’ to the ‘women’ themselves. This is because literacy is all about the empowerment of women and has little to nothing to do with young men in Syria – it is all about the women! Greater literacy leads to widened opportunities and emboldened empowerment for the women – irrespective of religion.

Moreover, Urdu, Arabic and Swahili are not conduits for radicalisation, and neither is English is a silver bullet to extremism. Of the UK’s entire Muslim population, some 0.02% of its members have fled the UK to join DAESH. Although we know that most Brits who join DAESH are second or third generation Brits, even if we accept the Prime Minister’s 22% claim and hone in on immigrant Muslim women, this would only amount to 0.29% of people emerging from the ‘non-proficient’ category of literacy. Therefore, 99.7% of the ‘’illiterate’’ Muslim women in the UK are carrying out sterling job in doing the very British thing of not raising children who join DAESH.

With this in mind, the frustration elicited by the Prime Minister’s recent strategy is understandable; instead of limiting the funds to Muslim women immigrants in the UK, it should have been earmarked for all immigrants, in a clear spirit of inclusivity and universal integration.

Given that the original literacy funding was removed in 2011, compounded by the fact that a charge was then added to immigrants hoping to learn English in 2013, this money could have helped so many and aided integration. Had the Prime Minister extended this olive-branch to all immigrants, then I’m sure many of us would be applauding the policy. This much was not lost on Dr Edward Kessler, director of the Woolf Institute, who this week said:

“It is extremely unfortunate that the prime minister has chosen to focus solely on Muslim women to make an important point about the integration of immigrants.

“As a result, rather than empowering women, the Muslim communities can be further alienated, making it harder rather than easier for Muslim women to seek help from public authorities.”

The most absonant implication of the Prime Minister’s new strategy is that poor literacy, tested at a new interim of two and a half years, will be probable cause for the government to deport women, potentially separating them from their families. In short, if you are unfortunate enough to end up somewhere in the national census’ ‘no-woman’s land’, situated between ‘proficient’ and ‘non-proficient’ literacy, then you could well face deportation. Surely children and spouses would have an overriding human right to their mothers and wives in such a situation?

As a self-professed, non-census, ‘proficient’ British Muslim woman, who loves this nation as a point of both faith and good citizenship, I would like to posit a solution to the ongoing threat of radicalisation. It may come as a surprise to you, but what I have to offer is centred on a link between poor literacy and radicalisation.

There is, in fact, a tangible and fundamental connection that studies have drawn between radicalisation and poor literacy. A deficiency, however, that does not relate to English language nor immigrant women, but an increasing number of people who are radicalised due to Islamic, religious illiteracy.

In 2008, a classified report compiled by MI5’s ‘Behavioural Science Unit’ concluded that: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.” 

In 2011 Ali Soufan, an former senior FBI agent, revealed that during interrogations of Al-Qaeda operatives he found that while they were well versed in the political ideology of the movement, they had little knowledge of Islam or the Quran. Later in 2013, two would-be extremists apprehended before leaving for Syria were found to have purchased the books ‘Islam for Dummies’ and the ‘Koran for Dummies’ to help them through their new endeavour.

Last year a released prisoner of DAESH, Didier François, told CNN that his captors did not even have a copy of the Quran and were pre-occupied with political ideology.

It is thus important for the Government and Mr. Cameron to look beyond token issues, which in reality are negligible in the wider fight against extremism. Rather, they must confront the ugly political ideology that is the lifeblood of terrorist groups; an ideology that bears no resemblance to the teachings of Islam. Some of our vulnerable Muslim youth are unaware of this reality. As such, they are in desperate need of Islamic literacy and to become familiar with the strong sense of pluralism that sits at the heart of Islam.

As the leader of this great country, I urge Mr. Cameron to seek out the voices of reason from within the UK Muslim community and to work with a wider variety of leading and representative Muslim women’s organisations such as the UK’s largest organisation, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association. There is much more that British Muslim women can contribute towards the solutions to this problem.

Madiha Walker is a graduate in Arabic and Islamic studies. She writes on social affairs and culture, with a specific interest in gender and Muslim women in the UK.  Madiha can be reached on Twitter

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