SUN 18 - 8 - 2019
Feb 25, 2019
The Daily Star
Dustbin of history? The case of Shamima Begum
When the French philosopher Voltaire was asked on his deathbed to renounce Satan, the avowed atheist famously replied: “My good man, this is no time to be making enemies.”
I suspect Shamima Begum, the London born “Daesh [ISIS] bride” who is probably the most famous teenage mother in the world right now, doesn’t read a lot of Voltaire. Her loss. If she was familiar with the great unbeliever she might have followed his example in a tight corner.
Instead, in the first of what turned out to be myriad media interviews after The Times of London reporter Anthony Loyd found her in Al-Hawl refugee camp, Begum admitted to being well aware of the atrocities Daesh carried out during its reign of terror, and wasn’t troubled by them.
“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told Loyd.
Her failure to condemn Daesh almost certainly led to the decision by the U.K. government to strip her of her U.K. citizenship last week, leaving the 19-year-old stateless. Following the decision, Begum gave another interview in which she said she was “willing to change” and asked the U.K. government to show her “mercy.”
Unfortunately for Begum, mercy appears to be in short supply in the U.K. right now. A recently launched petition demanding a ban on all Daesh members from returning to the U.K. had garnered more than half a million signatures following a surge after Begum’s initial comments. More on that in a moment.
First it’s worth recounting Begum’s personal odyssey. In 2015, Begum, then aged 15, along with two schoolmates, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, left her home in London’s East End, telling her parents she was going out for the day. Instead she and her pals caught a plane to Turkey, traveled overland to Syria and into the world’s headlines by joining up with Daesh. Begum lived in Raqqa and married a Dutch convert, by whom she claims to have had two children that died in infancy. She left Raqqa when it fell, and her husband surrendered to Syrian fighters. Sultana appears to have been killed in an air raid in 2016 and the whereabouts of Abase are unknown.
From a legal perspective, the decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship is distinctly dodgy. The case put forward by the government is that Begum is a dual citizen of Bangladesh, her mother’s birthplace, and as such can be legally stripped of her U.K. citizenship because she has an alternative one. Begum is one of more than 100 people to have her citizenship revoked, including Lebanese-born Bilal al-Berjawi, who grew up in London’s St. John’s Wood and was killed in a drone strike in Somalia. Nearly all were born outside the U.K.
The problem here is Begum was born in the U.K. Moreover, the Bangladesh government made it clear last week that Begum is not a citizen and it has no intention of making her one.
Begum’s family in London intend to challenge the U.K. government’s decision in court. They have also asked the government for assistance to bring Begum’s baby boy to London. For what it’s worth, Sajid Javid, the U.K. government Cabinet minister who rescinded Begum’s citizenship, has indicated her son is entitled to U.K. citizenship. “Children should not suffer,” he said. “So if a parent does lose their British citizenship, it does not affect the rights of their child.”
There are countless legal issues involved here, not to mention a raft of polarized views. But amid the inexplicably continuing uncertainty around Brexit and the wider descent of U.K. politics into chaos the U.K. government isn’t concerned about the legality. It is simply desperate to be seen to be decisive and tough.
Prime Minister Theresa May has been humiliated by being unable to get parliamentary approval for her painstakingly constructed deal to leave the European Union, with the government’s own parliamentarians voting against her. May, who traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh Sunday to discuss Brexit on the margins of the EU summit with Arab leaders and meet Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, failed to gain any concessions to make her deal more palatable to Parliament.
Political chaos isn’t just confined to the government. Amid May’s woes, the opposition Labour Party has been riven with accusations of anti-Semitism. The accusations have resulted in several Labour parliamentarians resigning to form a new centrist political grouping. The new grouping also includes a smaller number of politicians from the governing Conservative Party who oppose May’s handling of Brexit and accuse her of doing too much to appease right-wing anti-EU politicians in her government.
Against that backdrop Begum is an easy target that enables the government to look strong and tap into the growing xenophobia that is increasingly reverberating around post-Brexit U.K.
The case for showing Begum mercy largely depends on whether you believe she was simply an impressionable schoolgirl when she fled the U.K. to throw in her lot with Daesh.We all did daft things when we were 15, and there is a strong case to be made that Begum was groomed through manipulative online female militants. On the other hand, would grooming really blind her to the reality of life under Daesh?
The group’s penchant for butchering and beheading innocent civilians, for throwing homosexuals off high buildings and setting fire to captives in cages were all well-known before 2015. Begum could not have been unaware of the murderous reality of Daesh when she boarded her flight to Turkey and caught the bus to Syria.
However, I firmly believe the decision to rescind her U.K. nationality is wrong.
The decision diminishes the U.K. To consign Begum to the dustbin of history, stateless, on the basis of a decision she made as a child is shameful.
If Begum was radicalized through grooming, she was groomed in the U.K. Either way, she is a U.K. problem, not one that should be outsourced to another country, even if one could be found for her.
The national mood of rage toward the teenager in the face of her initial unrepentance is understandable. But it is also part of a wider anger in the U.K. about just about everything since the Brexit vote. It is worth pointing out that one of the reasons Begum has failed to show sufficient remorse might be because when the cameras and newspapers go home at night, she’s still in a refugee camp surrounded by other Daesh flotsam and jetsam, not all of whom will be regretting their past.
In short, we cannot properly judge her. But our courts and legal system can, and that is why she should be returned to the U.K. and held accountable for her actions. Begum could be jailed for up to 10 years for being a member or supporting Daesh. She could face a life sentence if there is evidence she assisted in atrocities or helped prepare a terrorist attack. More importantly, rehabilitating Begum, or deradicalizing her, would also yield important information on what enticed her and her school pals to join Daesh and provide ways to prevent other young people from becoming radicalized.
When Begum and her schoolmates left London to join Daesh, they became the hip global poster girls for the group and fundamentalist Islam. Returning Begum to the U.K., putting her on trial for whatever crimes she has committed and rehabilitating her would perhaps turn her into the poster girl for the values the U.K. holds dear, and show the true strengths of democracy and liberalism over the death cult she and others embraced.
As Voltaire also remarked: “Love truth, but pardon error.”
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of The Daily Star, is a writer in the United Kingdom.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 25, 2019, on page 6.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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