British Prime Minister David Cameron this week unveiled a plan to advance the rights of Muslim women living in Britain and thus stamp out extremism. Cameron's aims are admirable, even his means. But the overall tone condescends Muslims everywhere, as if he has decided to worn the mantle of the white man's burden, leaving me wondering if he has truly engaged Britain's Muslims.
In his Times op-ed Cameron called for English education for Muslim women and put 20 million British pounds on the table to fund the program. The new English requirements are envisioned to stem the tide of Britons who head to Syria to join ISIS. Recent immigrants who came to the UK via spousal visas will need to pass an English proficiency test after 2.5 years in country, or face extremism. Currently 190,000 Muslim women live in Britain who do not speak passable English. The idea is that women who don't speak English cannot integrate properly--ie embrace British civic values--thus comfort their sons and daughters with the identify issues of growing up in a culture and society different from the one these mothers left behind.
Others, such as Allison Pearson for The Telegraph, have joined calls for a ban on face veils, or the niqab, in settings where a uniform is required, à la France--because er...that has gone so well. She writes, "And I'm sorry, but no one is ever going to convince me that shrouding a woman's body and face say anything other than other than Subjugated Female Within."
If you ask me--no one did--these calls for adopting a common tongue and wardrobe choice evoke the white man's burden, the idea that a superior western society must share with it its superior way of life.
In Rudyard Kipling's eponymous poem, he calls on the colonizers to civilize the colonized. In this case, the "natives" are homegrown and living on British soil. The idea that women, or all immigrants, need to speak English to properly integrate into the UK evokes the white man's burden to save the colonized native from himself, in this case herself. One finds a similar comparison of America's handling of Native Americans. As shown in the 1970 Harper's Weekly cartoon, if only Native American's dressed properly and got off the reservations to be like white farmers with small farms they would be able to fit into American society.
Well, what are we supposed to do then? Cameron states he cares for Muslim women. Did he have to judge what he sees as their maligned circumstances? As someone who lived in the Arab world for a number of years, I have become extremely grateful that I grew up with the opportunities afforded a woman in the United States. Yet I still don't think that Cameron and others' judgmental attitudes are the answer. In addition to improved English language education for ALL immigrants, regardless of religion, Cameron could have dedicated more resources to academic panels that research anti-Islamism and the causes of extremism.
There are no easy answers.