Shamima Begum: Neither Victim or Villain?
How do you solve a problem like Shamima Begum? This is the question that has crossed the minds of many after the teenage jihadi bride runaway from Bethnal Green was recently discovered in a refugee camping Northern Syria with a newborn baby boy and has revealed that she wants to return to Britain. In February 2015 the then 15 year old Shamima Begum travelled to Syria with her two friends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, to join ISIS. Now, she has had her citizenship revoked by the Home office rendering her and her newborn baby stateless under the pretext that she is a dual citizenship with Bangladesh as well as Britain (which is disputed by her family).
There are two positions expressed by most on this question. For some Begum is a victim, an innocent and naive child who was groomed and brainwashed by Jihadists into joining the ‘Islamic state’. For others however, Begum is not a victim, she is a villain who knew what she was doing and willingly joined the most notorious terrorist organisation of modern times therefore she shouldn’t be allowed to return home.
Both sides are wrong. She is neither a naive victim nor an evil villain. Such a binary simplifies what is a very complex and multi-faceted moral question that requires intense reasoning and ethical intelligence. On the one hand she was just 15 when she left for Syria and likely was more vulnerable and easily persuadable than if she was an adult. She clearly has been through a terrible experience, losing a previous two babies shortly after their births and lived through the horror of war. Britain cannot discard of its responsibility for Begum. She should’ve been allowed to return to Britain because whether one likes it or not she is a British citizen which means Britain has certain legal and moral obligations it has to fulfil.
On the other hand, Begum cannot and should not evade responsibility for her actions. Portraying her as simply a victim denies her of her agency and her capacity to think for herself and make her own decisions. She and her two friends chose to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They made their plans in secret and with care and took careful measures to evade detection. So while it may be the case that there were online handlers who seized on their teenage vulnerability and facilitated their ‘radicalisation’, it remains the case that they were of their own volition very much attracted to ISIS’ project and took the effort to join it.
It is worthy to note that some of the people who thought that the MAGA hat kid of the Covington schoolboys were the epitome of pure evil and no excuses should be made for him whatsoever are now comparatively sympathetic and charitable in their approach to Begum. It is often said by some that if Begum was white and Christian instead of brown and Muslim then she would get more sympathy. Maybe this is true, it very well might, and I do think that revoking her citizenship is in danger of setting an alarming precedent of de facto creating a two tier citizenship system that is racially coded where citizenship is viewed as provisional and a privilege not as inalienable and a right.
But one can flip this point about “double standards” the other way. If this was in fact a 15 year old white girl who joined a white nationalist cult that was well known for carrying out brutal racist atrocities and executed thousands because they didn’t belong to the ‘master race, who had no regrets over her initial decision and was indifferent at best and supportive at worst of the atrocities committed by the organisation, I don’t think many of them would take an empathetic let alone sympathetic approach to choose to emphasise her vulnerability and naivety.
Some may not like me bringing this up and will possibly claim that they are not the same and can’t be compared. The point is you can’t have it both ways. But then again each side has their subliminal ideological bias that allows them extend the hand of charity and ‘understanding’ to one kind of extremist and a ‘fuck you’ attitude with a different kind of extremist.
Those who confidently assert that the Home office was right to revoke Begum’s citizenship and state that she should be barred from Britain no ifs or buts seem not to realise the narrowness of their view. Revoking Begum’s citizenship entry into Britain isn’t simply keeping her out of Britain’s shores. It is effectively offloading our responsibility onto another state or organisation. Why should Britain expect the Kurds or Bangladesh to burden the responsibility of someone who joined and pledged allegiance to an organisation that is as much their enemy as Britain’s.
Could Begum still be a security risk to Britain? Possibly. We don’t know for sure and one cannot make a firm assessment on such an important question based on a couple of interviews she has given to journalists in a refugee camp in the middle of a war zone. Her lack of remorse, her indifference to the suffering ISIS has caused to its victims, her narcissism and her total lack of self awareness is grotesque and repugnant. However, these views, horrible they may be are not sufficient enough for her to be tried in front of a court. Begum should only be tried for her actions, not her opinions. She deserves due process and innocence until proven guilty as much as anybody else. If indeed she does a risk to Britain she equally poses a risk to Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Bangladesh or wherever she ends up.
Since ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking back control’ has been in vogue in the past few years since the Brexit referendum, it seems like this Tory government doesn’t know the meaning of the word sovereignty. They want all the perks but none of the responsibilities. An independent and sovereign nation that makes and controls its laws has to hold its citizens accountable when they break the law and not de facto outsource it to other communities. By the logic of the Home Office Britain can’t deport foreign born criminals (something its very enthusiastic about) because its not the problem of their country as their crimes were committed on British soil so its Britain’s burden. Again you can’t have it both ways.
Begum was radicalised in Britain and there are a substantial number of young Muslim men and women born and bred in Britain just like her who hold similar views and buy into the Islamist ideology of ISIS and others. Until we understand why these people hate the society they live in so much and why the Jihadist cause appeals to them and captures their imagination then we will be unable to stop the rot and prevent more people joining ISIS and causing more death and misery around the world. Begum is still only 19 and the door for redemption is still open even if at the moment she is nowhere near entering it. However, before we can begin this process there must be justice and she must be held accountable and neither patronised as an innocent victim and vilified as the devil incarnate.
Ever since the so called ‘war on terror’ was commenced in 2001, we have frequently heard from politicians and commentators that what makes Britain and countries like it different and superior to groups like ISIS who hate us for our way of life is that we follow and uphold the rule of law and human rights norms. It is in difficult cases like this where we discover how true this really is. Unfortunately, the Home Office’s actions thus far has disappointed with their reactionary and counterproductive measure and has done more to undermine liberal values and British citizenship than to protect it.