In 2015, 15-year-old Shamima Begum and two other female students from Bethnal Green fled to Syria to join the proscribed Islamic terrorist organisation The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The girls were most likely radicalised on social media. The tale of Shamima’s radicalisation is fairly commonplace: the teenager was targeted and groomed by ISIL recruiters online, luring her to Syria with promises of fulfilment. Grief and brainwashing transformed her, over the course of just over a year, from a typical Western teenager to an extremist who misplaced her identity into the idea of the caliphate. Women’s Equality UK put it in the terms that “Shamima Begum was groomed as child, forced to marry and bear children.”
After four years, the nineteen-year-old was discovered by reporters in a refugee camp in northern Syria. When she was found, she was heavily pregnant; now, she has a newborn child. She didn’t strike a sympathetic character in her media interviews: glassy-eyed, matter-of-fact, even detached, she was a far cry from our usual conception of a victim as she spoke almost blithely of having seen severed heads. And yet by her account, she has witnessed a friend die, and had two children die of disease and malnutrition. Now, Shamima says she wants to come home to the UK.
Stoked by the media, this has elicited a polarised response within a society compromised between its judicial values of punishment and rehabilitation, and essential factors in the debate are being lost in the process of creating racialised, dehumanising, and scaremongering narratives.
It must, firstly, be accepted that Shamima’s grooming at the age of fifteen – a child, not old enough to vote or consent to sex – necessarily blurs the line, legally, between culpability and victimhood. In August 2018, the head of child protection charity NSPCC warned that children can be groomed online “within the space of a 30 or 45 minute communication”. ISIL’s social media outreach to disaffected young Muslims in a ripe environment moulded by Islamophobia and aggressively interventionist Western foreign policy cannot be underestimated. In spite of this, social media has seen the proliferation of memes about Shamima referring to joining the terrorist group as a “mistake”, which suggests that the power of the radicalisation and coercion of young men and women into Islamist terrorism is completely misunderstood. Shamima’s sister’s letter to Sajid Javid recollecting “the sister I knew, and the daughter my parents bore” completely contradicts the idea that Shamima was predisposed to evil rather than brainwashed. These kinds of conceptions result in the criminalisation of ordinary, blameless Muslims – the sneaking, unsubstantiated suspicion that a woman in hijab sympathises with those who practice genocide and sexual slavery. This now means that, according to Hope not Hate, one in three Britons believe that Islam is a threat to their way of life.
At the time of writing, the Home Office are pursuing the path of revoking Shamima’s British citizenship, without due process or a trial, using the rationale that she has dual Bangladeshi citizenship via her parents’ heritage (which has been denied by both the Begums’ lawyer and Bangladesh). This is the crucial flaw in the Shamima Begum debate – there is no choice as to whether she should be repatriated. She was born, raised, and groomed here in the UK. It is mystifying as to why anyone would celebrate the state illegally attempting to wash their hands of her, leaving her where she can neither be reintegrated nor prosecuted, in a stateless limbo that flouts international law and the Human Rights Charter. This move by the Home Office should be reviled, not celebrated. It sets an alarming precedent for those from immigrant heritage here in the UK, who will now feel more insecure in their British citizenship simply based on their background. It is a fear that is justified by the Home Office’s continuation of the deportation of black Brits to Jamaica in the wake of the Windrush scandal.
There is, additionally, a certain strain of racism and imperial arrogance to the idea that Shamima is no longer British. She has never been to Bangladesh, does not speak Bengali, and does not hold a Bangladeshi passport. It is difficult to imagine a white criminal being stripped of their citizenship and thus regarded so easily as being of a different nationality; instead, it is a consequence of the racial othering that profiles people who look like Shamima as “not British”. Neither has she “made her bed” in Syria – Syria is not a dumping ground for our unwanted criminals, and neither does the country have the legal obligation to expend resources on prosecution. She is a British citizen, and it is a British responsibility to assess her criminality. Crucially, the Home Office’s actions and the growing climate of hatred will be undoubtedly exploited by ISIL recruiters, using this to further convince vulnerable Muslims that the West has rejected them.
At a time when insufficient attention has been given to how Western arms deals and nationalist politics have empowered ISIL, the attention to and quality of the Shamima Begum Debate seems increasingly inadequate. It is the sign of a society that has not learned.