The counter-extremism shift in ESOL policy and the double-securitisation of Muslims

The counter-extremism shift in ESOL policy and the double-securitisation of Muslims

Kamran Khan

In 2019, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan and the Conservative MP, Sajid Javid both endorsed separate approaches to tackling extremism which included some form of English language provision.   Sadiq Khan endorsed the ‘Countering Violent Extremism strategy and highlighted the current lack of funding for English language provision. Sajid Javid proposed the introduction of a British Values Test and ‘strengthened English Language provision’ in his Confronting extremism together’ speech.  These security-based language policy proposals went largely unnoticed and have become somewhat commonplace in political discourse. However, the formation and implications of such proposals requires greater reflection.

It is worth taking a step back in order to view these proposals in a fuller context.   A logical place to start would be in 2001 when riots in three northern cities (Oldham, Burnley and Bradford) over the summer resulted in highly violent scenes.  The Labour MP Anne Cryer argued that part of the reason for British Asian youths rioting was a lack of English in their families and proposed English language testing requirements for citizenship. In 2005, the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test was introduced as a result of the riots and served in part to validate Cryer’s arguments in political circles.

The claim that a lack of English was a precursor for the 2001 violence appeared in three subsequent reports (the Denham report, the Cantle report and Ritchie report).  All three reports suggested a lack of English among migrant communities had created a climate of mistrust with their white counterparts.  This in turn had provided a combustible environment for the subsequent carnage. Perhaps most famously, the Cantle report noted that people were living ´parallel lives’. By linking a perceived lack of English among a predominantly Muslim community with violence, English language became securitized.

This conflation involving Muslims, language and security would be re-iterated several times over the years by key political figures. Michael Gove, who drew upon the post-riot findings in his book Celsius 7/7, argued that a lack of English among Muslim migrants had led to ´sense of separateness´ which could also make them susceptible to ´Radical Islam.´ In essence, Gove provided a narrative link between the 2001 riots and the 7/7 bombings and framed Muslims involved in both as predisposed to violence by virtue of their shared religion in both events. Thus, English was positioned as a guarantor of security while those who threatened this security due to their lack of English were a threat.  Deborah Cameron argued in this context, ‘language becomes more clearly a metaphor for the so called “clash of civilizations,” and the central opposition is between English and Islam’. As a consequence, English would be a solution for the wider problem of extremism.

Prime Minister Cameron continued the narrative thread of English language, Muslims and security.   In his Munich Security Conference speech in 2011, he argued for more English language provisions in the fight against extremism and in 2016, he promised £20m of investment for adult language provision for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) as part of a counter extremism plan.  This was curious given that his government had already reduced funding by £45m. ESOL cuts were made in the name of austerity only for investment to re-appear for counter-extremism.

What the political discourse and language and policy proposals demonstrated was the existing lack of funding for ESOL. In 2010-11, the Action for English group made up of predominantly ESOL practitioners was created as a reaction to funding cuts. What is highly problematic is that these concerns are being addressed through the lens of security concerns around learners rather than based on their needs and personal advancement.  This makes the promise of investment an offer that may be too good to refuse for some ESOL practitioners, especially given the highly precarious nature of ESOL work due to chronic under-funding.

Away from the discourse of politicians, English for counter-extremism was to appear in the 2016 The Counter Extremism Strategy. Rather than position language policy as perhaps solely an educational matter, the strategy marks a shift towards language policy firmly under a counter-extremism agenda.  Under an educational policy, learners would be learners but under the guise of counter-extremism, learners are exceptionalised as potential extremists. This re-defines the relationship involving learners and their tutors, educational institution and wider society.

Security can be understood as how risk and fear are distributed within society particularly in targeting sub-sections of the population. Within the framing of language and extremism, those who are at risk’ and in need of English as an intervention yet also risky due to their lack of English are (a) Muslims (b) migrants and (c) possess lower levels of English proficiency. What makes ESOL learners especially targeted is that they are quite possibly subject to two security lenses.  Firstly, as I have explained above they would be targeted through language provision for counter-extremism purposes.  Secondly, as with other educational settings, they may be subject to the highly contentious Prevent program under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, to which educational institutions duty bound. The dimensions of religion, migration and language intersect to distribute risk and suspicion towards a group that may already face significant hostility and racism. Through this double-securitisation of Muslim ESOL learners, and perhaps other Muslims with a perceived lack of English, are positioned as uniquely problematic.

The logic behind the political discourse and policy proposals is that extremism is caused by a lack of integration and a lack of integration is caused by a lack of a common, national language.  Following this logic, provision for the national language is necessary to stop individuals from being drawn into extremism by addressing social isolation.  In this sense, English language proficiency becomes an appendage to existing processes of radicalisation which focus on isolated or vulnerable individuals. Dal Babu the former Chief of the Metropolitan Police, explicitly refuted the frame of English language proficiency as a causal factor of extremism. While politicians have argued that English language provision is needed as part of counter-extremism, it is not clear how a lack of English has actually contributed to individuals becoming extreme rather than isolated.

In terms of those who do go on to commit violent attacks, it is noticeable how language proficiency proved little defence against extremism.  For example, three of the four of the 2005 London bombers were born in the UK and all were educated in the UK.  Both of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s attackers were British and educated in the UK. Likewise, the Manchester bomber from the 2017 attack, which killed 23 people, was born and educated in Lancashire.  Thus, even being proficient in English provided no immunity from embracing extremist ideas.  In fact, far-right extremists have been identified as the fastest growing threat in British society. However, their presumed knowledge of English has not stopped them from embracing extremism.  By focusing on the English language proficiency, there is an implicit racialization of extremism that points a finger of suspicion towards Muslims without mentioning them.

Language proficiency has acted as a marker of an enemy within in other cases.  Intelligence reports for the 7/7 bombing highlighted how the conversations occurred often in English between those who had northern, English accents. For instance, in 2015 during the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris the gunmen were immediately identified as speaking ‘perfect French.’ In a similar vein, perpetrators of the Barcelona terrorist attack in 2017 were described as ‘well integrated and who spoke perfect Catalan’. Thus, being perceived to not learn a national language may be viewed as detrimental to national security yet learning the language and committing an act of violence can also be viewed as evidence of a hidden ‘enemy within.’

One key concern is that the introduction of security-based language policy would codify speakers of other languages – particularly Muslims – as inherently risky and problematic.  This also sows the seeds for further intolerance towards other non-English languages and their speakers.  If the languages of particular groups are seen as problematic and the basis for security-based interventions in the current climate of hostility, there can be no surprise when speakers of these groups encounter racism and violence in their everyday lives.  For example, there have been cases of hate crimes against Muslims which make explicit mention of terrorism, their English language proficiency and/or their use of other non-English languages.

To sum up, the fundamental question at the centre of this counter-extremism shift in language policy is: does a perceived lack English make an individual more likely to become an extremist? The question itself pre-supposes a certain level of suspicion which is already telling.  The concern would be that such language policy serves to stigmatise communities rather than supporting them.  Any moves forward need to consider carefully the implications of language policy that is based on security and counter-extremism rather than long standing needs of communities and learners within an under-funded area of education.


Kamran Khan is a post-doctoral researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. He specialises in issues around language and citizenship as well as how security intersects with language policy. His current research project investigates the experiences of citizenship testing for immigrants in Catalonia.