ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Britain's prime minister announced on Monday that he wants immigrants to learn English. If they don't, they could face deportation. David Cameron drew widespread criticism because his focus is on Muslim women. He introduced a plan to spend almost $30 million on English classes and suggested that those who don't know the language may be more susceptible to extremist views. NPR's Leila Fadel reports on the reaction.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At the Migrant Resource Center in central London, Ruby Douek volunteers to teach English for free.
RUBY DOUEK: So health is how we are, how we feel. Maybe sometimes we are not so well. Maybe sometimes...
FADEL: She feigns different ailments and goes through basic vocabulary.
DOUEK: I am sick. I have a headache.
FADEL: Her class is a mix of people from around the world. She volunteers here, she says, because newcomers to Britain can't get a job without English and they can't afford English classes without a job. Now, David Cameron says people who want to stay in Britain need to speak English, but his plans concentrate on the plight of women in communities that he says aren't fully integrated into British society. He named Muslim women as a particular problem and said that if immigrants don't improve their fluency in English, that could affect their ability to stay in the U.K. Cameron spoke to the British television channel ITV.
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DAVID CAMERON: There are also obligations that we should put on people who come to our country and chief amongst them should be obligations to learn English because then you can integrate, you can take advantage of the opportunities here and you can help us to build the strong country that we want.
FADEL: Writing in the Times of London, Cameron said he would tell the hard truths to confront a minority of Muslim men who he said had backward attitudes that exerted what he called damaging control over women and their families. Cameron told the story of a Muslim mother who couldn't speak English so she couldn't connect with her son's struggles in British society before he got onto a path of extremism. But his comments also sparked outrage from many in the Muslim community who said he was unfairly singling out Muslim women. Humera Khan runs a charity for Muslim women and families called the An-Nisa Society.
HUMERA KHAN: Of course we believe everybody should be able to speak the national language of whichever country they live in. It's not just Muslims living in Britain speaking English. It's important you're able to access a lot of information. In principle, it's an important thing.
FADEL: She says that there is a problem with a minority of British Muslim youth being lured into radical groups the same way some other youths join street gangs, but that must be dealt with in context and not blamed on whether their mothers speak English or not.
KHAN: The link in the way that it was framed is dangerous because it conforms to this idea that Muslim women are placid and oppressed, and David Cameron is reinforcing that.
FADEL: Back at the Migrant Resource Center, Ruby Douek says she found Cameron's plan confusing. Over the summer, the government cut nearly $65 million earmarked for English language classes, but the prime minister is saying it's vitally important for immigrants to improve their English.
DOUEK: So it's kind of take with one hand and then give back a bit with the other.
FADEL: The nonprofit where Douek volunteers is so underfunded it's being forced to sell the building where she teaches. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.