Muslim women who fail to learn English to a high enough standard could face deportation from Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Monday.
He also suggested that poor English skills can leave people “more susceptible” to the messages of groups like Islamic State (IS).
Cameron’s comments came as his centre-right Conservatives launched a £20 million ($28.5 million, 26 million euro) language fund for women in isolated communities as part of a drive to build community integration.
Immigration rules already force spouses to speak English before they come to Britain to live with their partners.
But Cameron said they would also face further tests after two and a half years in the country to make sure their language skills were improving.
“You can’t guarantee you will be able to stay if you are not improving your language,” he told BBC radio. “People coming to our country, they have responsibilities too.”
Cameron’s government estimates that around 190,000 Muslim women in England — about 22 percent — speak little or no English.
There are estimated to be around 2.7 million Muslims in England out of a total population of some 53 million.
Cameron said that a lack of language skills could make Muslims in Britain more vulnerable to the message of extremist groups.
“I am not saying there is some sort of causal connection between not speaking English and becoming an extremist, of course not,” he told BBC radio.
“But if you are not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore, you could be more susceptible to the extremist message.”
His comments drew criticism from Muslim groups and opposition parties.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, which campaigns for better community relations, accused Cameron of “disgraceful stereotyping”.
“David Cameron and his Conservative government are once again using British Muslims as a political football to score cheap points to appear tough,” he added.
And Andy Burnham, home affairs spokesman for the main opposition Labour party, accused Cameron of a “clumsy and simplistic approach” which was “unfairly stigmatising a whole community.”