Shamima Begum: should she be allowed back?

Photograph of Shamima Begum, a young South Asian woman wearing a black head-covering with a face veil which has been flipped up over her head.
Shamima Begum, photographed by The Times

In this morning’s Times there is an interview with Shamima Begum, one of three girls from east London who ran away from their families to join ISIS, or at least live in ISIS territory (also known as ISIL, Da’esh, Islamic State Group and various other names) in 2015, who has fled along with her husband and is now in a Kurdish-run refugee camp in Syria. She was 15 years old when she left the UK; she is now 19 and pregnant and has lost two children to disease and malnutrition as the Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces closed in on their former territory. The government have said they will not risk British soldiers’ lives to try to rescue British citizens who are trapped in Syria as a result of having deliberately joined ISIS and people who have previously gone out there and returned of their own volition have been jailed, both for joining and for participating in their propaganda. There is widespread sympathy for her from people who claim that she was 15 years old at the time and must have been ‘groomed’ into doing what she did, while others say she was old enough to know better, that she knowingly joined a terrorist army and “made her bed and should lie in it”. (More: The Brown Hijabi.)

<!—more—>Aside from claiming she must have been groomed or brainwashed, her sympathisers say that young White people who had got themselves involved in Christian cults are not prosecuted, including in cases such as the Branch Davidians. However, in that situation the children did not join as teenagers; they were brought up in the religion by parents who had in some cases been involved longer than David Koresh, the leader who provoked the siege, had. Nobody who left the camp in the period immediately before the fire was simply allowed to go free; parents and children were split up and the children taken into care and the parents often detained as material witnesses. Nobody who joined the Branch Davidians joined with the intention of fighting the government and would not have heard of them massacring civilians or taking slaves, because no such thing had been taking place. A more apt comparison would be with child soldiers in Africa (who are not white), who are rehabilitated into society rather than being imprisoned for years or killed. However, these were often taken from their homes by force at a much younger age than 15.

I am also not convinced by the claims about grooming, let alone brainwashing. This is a stock argument by anyone who wants to explain away a person’s actions if they committed them before age 16 or 18; it’s also common for people to use arguments relating to conditioning, brainwashing, “false consciousness” or similar to explain away people’s actions that they do not understand, even if they are adults (such as any group of ‘oppressed’ people failing to jump behind people purporting to ‘liberate’ them). The level of propaganda in the Muslim community in support of ISIS was not high; there were few Muslims who publicly supported ISIS and as for ISIS atrocities, there none of the culture of disbelief about Muslim involvement that followed 9/11. I was actually surprised by the volume of material condemning them from people who would have been equivocal about Al-Qa’ida ten years earlier. You had to really know where to look to get ‘groomed’ into supporting ISIS.

The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10; in most of Europe it is slightly higher (in Belgium 18). True, the age of consent for sex is 16, but people are rarely prosecuted if the older person is only a couple of years older or is also underage. People get tried for serious crimes if they are between 10 and 18; if it is a minor offence, it is in juvenile court and if it is a serious one, such as involvement in terrorism, it is in a Crown Court with some modifications to take account of someone’s young age. The issue of grooming is taken into account but is not a total defence because it is recognised that young people do have some ability to make their own decisions and cannot blame anyone else if they choose to believe propaganda, or the claims of someone on an Internet chat room, and run away to join an outfit widely reported as having perpetrated war crimes. The age of both consent and responsibility in Islamic law, for most people, is puberty; this is why she was able to marry in Raqqa at age 15 and why, as a Muslim, I consider her decision to join them as her responsibility alone.

Some people are claiming she is unrepentant; others that she is a psychopath for saying that she was not fazed by seeing a human head in a bin because he may well have been a spy. However, in the interview she says that she now believes that they did not deserve to succeed because of their oppressions, including executing some foreign fighters on the pretext that they were spies, so clearly she has changed her views even if she does not regret going. If she was allowed to resettle in the UK, she would not be the first to be allowed to do so: in 1996 Britain allowed the former dictator of Sierra Leone, Valentine Strasser, into the UK to study, although he left after his fellow students found him out; we also allow British citizens who have served in the Israeli army or lived in illegal settlements to live freely here without asking if they were involved in human rights abuses or breaches of international law, or if they had imbibed any of the extremist attitudes from the army or the settler communities. People live in this country who would justify all sorts of things — Communists who would justify the invasion of Hungary (and numerous other atrocities), Assad supporters who spread his propaganda, Zionists who excuse Israeli oppression and abuse their victims. That isn’t a crime.

Ultimately, she has to live somewhere. Shiraz Maher posted a tweet thread that suggested that the foreign fighters (Muslims from many western countries among them) might be turned over to the custody of the Syrian or Iraqi governments, but we have to prepare for the possibility that they may simply be repatriated as they are not Syrian or Iraqi citizens and have no right to reside there; she may not have the citizenship of her parents’ or grandparents’ home country. We cannot imprison her indefinitely unless she has actually done something that merits it, such as commit a murder. There does not seem to be any evidence that she was personally involved in any atrocity; it was the men who did that and the women who served them and bore their children. That isn’t a crime either. I do not dispute that she should be punished according to the law for deliberately joining ISIS given what was known about it, but she will have to be allowed to walk the streets eventually.

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