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David Cameron is "stigmatising a whole community", Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has warned in response to the prime minister's plans for a new English language scheme targeted at Muslim women. Burnham's comments follow an opinion piece written by the prime minister in a national newspaper calling for "more progress on English language".
The Conservative leader claimed some 190,000 British Muslim women – or 22% – "speak little or no English despite many having lived here for decades." He went on to say "60% of women of a Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage are economically inactive" but made no mention of any other ethnic or religious group.
Like much of the public reaction, Cameron has drawn the ire of Burnham for specifically targeting the Muslim community. "In his desire to grab easy headlines, David Cameron risks doing more harm than good. His clumsy and simplistic approach to challenging extremism is unfairly stigmatising a whole community. There is a real danger that it could end up driving further radicalisation, rather than tackling it," Burnham said in a statement.
"The prime minister is right to talk about empowering women but his emphasis should be on women of all faiths and none. His commitment to English classes is welcome but people will ask why his government has spent the last few years cutting funding from these vital courses."
In his piece, published in the Times on 18 January, Cameron unveiled a £20m ($28.6m) fund to "make sure every woman from isolated communities with no English at all has access to classes".
But government critics have pounced on the announcement and accused the prime minister of not understanding the cause and effect of his own policy. In July 2015, the Department for Business slashed £45m in funding for thousands of Esol (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students. The move affected an estimated 16,000 people.
The irony of the drastic cut was not lost on Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. She posted on Twitter: "David Cameron – whose govt slashed funding for English lessons for migrants in 2011 –is now complaining migrants aren't learning English".
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron accused Cameron of "dressing up a massive cut as a £20m funding commitment". Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, Cameron said learning English was vital "to help people become more resilient against the messages of Daesh [Islamic State/Isis]". The prime minister added: "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 Daesh [IS]."
But the Tory leader has been accused of using Muslims "to score cheap points" while overlooking the overwhelming number of the faith's followers who reject radicalisation.
"David Cameron and his Conservative government are once again using British Muslims as a political football to score cheap points to appear tough," Mohammed Shafiq, CEO of the Ramadhan Foundation, told the Mirror. "There are three million Muslims in this country and the prime minister chooses to focus on a very small minority of extremists when clearly the majority of British Muslims reject extremism."