Muslim women who fail to learn English to a high enough standard could face deportation from the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron announced Monday.
He also suggested that poor English skills can leave people "more susceptible" to the messages of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Cameron's comments came as his center-right Conservatives launched a $28.5 million language fund for women in isolated communities as part of a drive to build community integration.
Current immigration rules require that spouses be able to speak English before they arrive in the U.K. to live with their partners.
Cameron said they would face further tests after 2 1/2 years in the country. "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."
His government estimates that about 190,000 Muslim women in the U.K. — about 22 percent — speak little or no English. There are estimated to be about 2.7 million Muslims in the U.K., out of a total population of some 64 million.
His comments drew criticism from Muslim groups and opposition parties.
Mohammed Shafiq, the 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," Shafiq added.
Andy Burnham, the home affairs spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, accused Cameron of a "clumsy and simplistic approach" that is "unfairly stigmatizing a whole community."
Former Conservative Party co-chair Sayeeda Warsi told BBC Radio 4's "World at One" that Cameron's idea was "lazy and misguided" and a "stereotyping of British Muslim communities."
"My parents came to this country with very little English. My mum's English still isn't great, even though she has been to English language classes," she said. "I think it is lazy and sloppy when we start making policies based on stereotypes which do badly stigmatize communities."
Cameron said that a lack of language skills could make Muslims in the U.K. 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 said. "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."
Shuja Shafi, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, backed Cameron's call but questioned his tactics. "The prime minister's aim to have English more widely spoken and for better integration falls at the first hurdle if he is to link it to security and single out Muslim women to illustrate his point," he said.