British Prime Minister David Cameron’s most recent language policy is aimed at mitigating extremism in Britain by improving the English skills of Muslim women. It requires that migrants to Britain on spousal visas pass an English test after residing in Britain for a certain period of time. The penalty for failure: The cancellation of their visa. Though Cameron concedes that there is no direct link between poor English language skills and extremism, he believes that compelling Muslim women to learn English will help them better integrate and thus stymie Islamist radicalization. In short, this coercive policy is sure to intensify the alienation of an already disenfranchised community and stiffen exclusive group identities; Cameron would do well to learn from Quebec’s language policies in response to the migrant crisis.
As xenophobic and populist movements draw increasing support throughout North America and Europe, mainstream politicians have responded in kind—shifting the prevailing political narrative further to the right. Though certain nations, such as Canada, have remained at least relatively insulated from this seemingly unstoppable tide of demonization and division, it is evident that migrant communities the world over will have to grapple with the hardships of starting life in a new country in an increasingly hostile climate. In such a time, politicians must be wary of their word choice. Leveraging differences between minorities and their broader communities, even with the intention of integration, dangerously situates the discourse in the ‘us’ vs.‘them’ narrative.
Cameron’s decision to directly target such a marginalized and disadvantaged community is, at best, misguided. At worst, it is intentionally divisive and hateful. Cameron’s policy compounds a vast number of women from diverse backgrounds into a monolithic other that must be socialized, lest their husbands and brothers turn them into enemies of the West. While it may be intended to empower otherwise marginalized women, the language of the policy is aimed at sending a message to men—Cameron has said that “this will make it clear to those men who stop their partners from integrating that there are consequences.” However, Cameron is also sending a message to newly immigrated Muslim women that they must learn English or get out of the country. The English language is, therefore, not a symbol of national cohesion, but a tool used by the government to force the hand of an isolated community. Immigrants who are Muslim women will instead feel more excluded and targeted, providing them with less incentive to participate in broader British society.
This being said, not all language policies are created equal. The emergence of xenophobic policy is not a universal phenomenon. Quebec’s response, for instance, to the some 7,300 Syrian refugees that will be living in the province by the end of 2016 has been to invest in the provision of access to French lessons within 45 days of their arrival to the province. Unlike Cameron’s policy, this plan doesn’t call for coercive deadlines or finger-point at would-be radicals. Rather, it acknowledges the inherent economic vulnerability of new migrants and affords them the opportunity to develop their linguistic skills.
What separates these two policies is how they are situated in the broader context of international migration and the migrant crisis. The UK’s mandate that Muslim women migrating to the country must conform to language standards within a set deadline creates a precedent regarding how newcomers to western nations should be treated. If the premise of Cameron’s policy is to be believed, migrants are ill-intentioned miscreants who, without intervention, will smuggle insidious ideas into ‘our country.’ Quebec’s policy differs from that of the UK’s insofar as it isn’t focused on saving ‘us’ from ‘them;’ it is aimed instead at aiding members of a community that are transitioning to a new environment. As increasing amounts of vulnerable migrants from across the world move to the West, politicians must be mindful of the contexts in which they are implementing policy. Though integration of migrant populations is a laudable goal, it must be carried out in ways that respect, not demonize, minority communities.