Shamima Begum: Victim or Villain?

Shamima Begum ran away to join ISIS when she was aged 15. Now she wants to return to the UK. Should we let her?

Image via Pixabay

Shamima Begum’s story is all over the news, and even the more balanced outlets are really only telling one side of this tale. The need for brevity is a part of that, given the complicated background to her recent decision. It’s clear that she still believes in the causes that she left to go and join, but she is also a British citizen, and it was here in the UK that she was radicalised. Little is being said about our responsibilities not just to her, but to serve justice and to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

In 2015, when Begum got on a flight to Turkey with two friends from her school, the news reports were very much concerned with her safety, and calls for her to return home. But now that she does wish to return, there is nothing but condemnation. We might say that she had a full four years out there, and is now an adult, so she has had plenty of time to think about what she’s doing, but I would imagine that her circumstances limited her choices somewhat.

We should also think about what it is that we actually want when there are calls for the government to not let her back. What effect would it have upon us if she does come home? In most cases, not a lot. She wouldn’t be permitted the same liberty as she would ordinarily, and there is very little overlap that’s likely to occur between her life and any of ours. There’s a reasonable chance she could be convicted of terrorism offences, and if she does try to influence anyone else to join ISIS, she would be committing an offence then. We have the systems in place to deal with her, so her return would not pose a practical problem.

However, it’s likely that the government wants to send a message and make an example of her. But the way they want to do it, they may be sending the wrong message, and it might not even be legal. As it stands, the Home Secretary has revoked her British citizenship, but it’s unclear if he is actually able to do this. British citizenship can be revoked if the citizen also has another nationality, but this cannot happen if it would make them stateless. Whether or not this would do that is open to interpretation.

Begum’s parents are from Bangladesh, which would entitle her to apply for citizenship there. But she was born and brought up in Britain, and has never been to Bangladesh. The only citizenship she holds at the moment is British, and she is currently in a refugee camp. Her family are set to appeal the decision, but whether or not they are successful, it doesn’t exactly make Britain look good in the eyes of the international community.

Aside from potentially making her stateless, there is the matter of serving justice — and given that it appears that Begum has only committed crimes in Britain (and even that’s unclear), it’s on the UK courts to process her. If we deprive her of citizenship and don’t let her back in, we’re not allowing justice to be done, and there are many opposed to ISIS that will take issue with this. Certainly, anyone who believes in the rule of law should be concerned.

The British government has recently made some serious decisions based on populist ideals, and they have taken the UK further and further to the right. Some of these policy decisions have done irreparable harm to the nation’s economy, reputation and standard of living. To deny Begum her citizenship and right to reside here is another of those populist choices that will have consequences that could harm us all.

During the Blair years, the Conservative opposition made much of the fact that the Labour government handled extremists with a seemingly soft touch, framing human rights as a free-for-all for terrorists. Since coming to power, the Conservative government has seen fit to curtail those rights, which apply to all of us. While we may not like Shamima Begum, her basic rights must be protected — the way we treat ‘undesirables’ is the indicator of how our government might treat any of us. We must have standards, and we must adhere to them.

There is a degree of opportunism, or necessity, depending on how you see it, in Begum’s choice to return now. Her husband has been captured, ISIS has been forced into a tiny corner of Syria, and she has recently given birth to her third child; she does not want this one to die of malnutrition like the other two. The UK would provide a safe haven, even if she is imprisoned.

But there are the inevitable calls for her to be denied her right to return here because she went off to join the enemy. Her actual role in the conflict doesn’t seem to have been anything more than that of the obedient housewife of one of the fighters — a role that we may disapprove of, but not one that we can condemn so easily on its merits alone. For us to deny her entry based on that seems a bit of a flimsy justification.

It seems that our understanding of Begum has changed in order to fit what is politically expedient. In 2015, she was portrayed as a vulnerable child, a victim of grooming, and it was vital that she was returned safely to her family. Now she is seen as a pariah, one of the enemy, and she must be kept out. At which point over the last four years did she change from one to the other?

Although she may not have reformed, and could pose a threat if not monitored properly, she is also vulnerable and in need of our help. She has recently given birth, she’s lost two children, and has been living in a repressive society in wartime. She has been indoctrinated and the only way to resolve this is to allow her to be rehabilitated. If we do not, and leave her in exile, she could become an even greater danger. If we take responsibility for her (as we should), then we can mitigate this, and we can keep an eye on her and any supporters she may have.

Over the last decade or so, Britain has deported citizens with dual nationality for numerous reasons, including if they commit crimes. The rationale behind this was, again, to keep racist elements of the electorate happy. British newspapers had been banging on about “foreign criminals coming over here” during the Labour years when we actually respected human rights and the rule of law, distorting the facts and whipping up fear.

It also means that we are shirking our responsibilities. Any problem that arises with a person of overseas heritage, our go-to solution is to deport them. We’re not doing our bit by protecting our own citizens (these people are also British, remember) or by ensuring that justice is done when one of our people commits a crime. If a crime is committed in Britain, by a British citizen, then it should be deal with by the British legal system. We should not be palming our problems off onto other countries, often those the individual has never been to since infancy, if at all.

These deportations are part of a wider problem in which state services like healthcare and taxes have been used to flag those with overseas connections and deny them their rights and citizenship. These are rights that belong to all British citizens, and if the government is happy to take them from some, then they would be happy to take them from any of us.

Whatever we think about UK immigration policy, or the morality of going abroad to marry an ISIS fighter, we do need to remember that there are human beings at the centre of this case. Shamima Begum deserves the same rights available to any UK citizen, and so does any criminal, or anyone who’s poor or disadvantaged in some other way. The UK has become a cold-hearted and mean-spirited place since the Conservatives were elected 9 years ago, and we’ve thrown out our values in favour of mob justice.

Begum needs to face the consequences of her actions, but these consequences must be proportionate and humane. She has the possibility of rehabilitation and to reject the values that she so recently adopted — others have done so before her. She also has a family that want her back home. The first they knew of her desire to join ISIS was after she had left the country. They could provide the support she needs to transition to a normal, law-abiding life.

And then there is her child, who has apparently been granted British citizenship, even though his mother has had hers revoked. He deserves a chance at a good life, and to separate him from his mother jeopardises that. We would only be dividing this family to prove a political point, rather than to deal with the actual situation. As well as safeguarding human rights, we can also be pragmatic and show compassion. We may be the only source of that available to Begum, and if we do not grant it, her hatred of the West will only intensify.

We think we are somehow punishing her by denying her entry to the UK, when in reality we are setting ourselves up for future problems, at home and abroad. Those youngsters who leave to join ISIS do so partly because of the promise of adventure and a new, different life in the Caliphate, but also because they feel like outsiders in the West. By rejecting those who wish to come home, we’re deepening the divisions felt by many non-White British people. This case is a test of our values, and we have to get it right. Abandoning our principles in the name of revenge is a bad idea.

We had already failed in our duty to protect and police Shamima Begum before she got on that plane four years ago. In spite of our attempts to curb Islamic extremism, she slipped through the net. We have undoubtedly prevented some extremist activity (how much, we may never know), but we didn’t catch this one. We’re quick to condemn the individual, but she was brainwashed in a nation that should have been looking out for her. We might not be able to prevent the radicalisation of everyone touched by it, but it is our job to try. We failed in Begum’s case, and now we need to own that. She is not the only one that must face the consequences — it’s up to us to do the right thing.