Not just a child

Picture of Shamima Begum, a young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf which drapes over her body, carrying a baby who is dressed in a blue-and-white striped garment. Behind her are two large white tents.
Shamima Begum

Last week the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum, the “ISIS bride” who ran away from home to join the self-styled Islamic State aged 15 in 2015, had no right to come back to the UK to contest the government’s decision to strip her of British citizenship on “national security” grounds in 2019. The government claim she has right to Bangladeshi nationality as this is where her family originate, but that country denies that she is a citizen (she was born in the UK) and refuses to allow her to live in the country, even saying that she could be tried and hanged if she entered Bangladesh. The Court of Appeal had allowed her appeal as she had been unable to contest the government’s decision from a detention camp her lawyers have been refused access to, but the Supreme Court claims the Court of Appeal “mistakenly believed that, when an individual’s right to have a fair hearing of an appeal came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail”, but in their view, “the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”. The judgment strikes me as naked deference to executive power, taking secret ‘evidence’ at face value.

There are two separate issues at play here. One is that British citizenship has been degraded to a glorified visa for anyone with a single non-British grandparent or with perceived right to any foreign nationality: the government can strip you of your citizenship on grounds that your presence here is “not conducive to the public good” on grounds of “involvement in terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours” and you would not be left stateless. This means that the government can strip you of your citizenship because they do not like you, or because the press has mounted a campaign against you. There is no other way of interpreting these words; “unacceptable behaviours” could mean anything. It’s the same phrase that enables the government to refuse a visa to a foreign national, often used to refuse entry to foreign rabble-rousers and hatemongers from Geert Wilders to Louis Farrakhan, but to deprive someone of citizenship is another matter. This plays to the demands of Islamophobes such as Douglas Murray, who called for anyone who sides with anyone fighting western forces anywhere to be deported, in the case of people born in the UK to the home country of a parent or grandparent. While obviously chiefly aimed at Asian and African Muslims, anyone of partly Irish or other European background could similarly be deported on a whim; any Jew could be denaturalised on the basis that they are entitled to Israeli nationality.

The other is Shamima Begum’s degree of responsibility. We know that, with two school friends of the same age, she travelled to Turkey on her own accord in 2015 and crossed the border into Syria. This followed contact with ISIS recruiters of some sort online which her parents were unaware of. Her defenders, particularly women, claim she was ‘groomed’ online and that her marriages in Syria were invalid and that if consummated, she was raped. These are dubious claims. ‘Grooming’ is a term normally associated with the sexual abuse of children and means the “softening-up” of a child for abuse: for example, men or older boys posing as friends or boyfriends, buying them food or giving them money with no apparent strings attached, only to demand sex later because “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. With younger children, it often consists of plying them with sweets or toys and inviting them for a ride in a nice car. To issue propaganda to someone over an Internet line that they could easily break off, claiming that ISIS is some sort of paradise when the opposite was well-known, is not grooming and many adults have fallen for the same propaganda and chosen to believe it over copious other evidence.

The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10; the age of majority in Islam is puberty. This is significant as I have heard many Muslims repeating these claims, often in conjunction with observations about how white society ‘adultifies’ Black children (although of course Shamima is not Black). There have been comparison with lighter sentences given to teenagers who had joined neo-Nazi groups and in some cases acquired weapons, but their plans never came to fruition and the Third Reich was abolished when Germany was occupied in 1945, 76 years ago, while Shamima Begum and her friends joined an extant criminal, terrorist state. While it is true that she was too young to marry in the UK at the time she left, she would have been old enough a few months later; in ISIS territory, however, English law did not apply and nor even did Syrian or Iraqi law, something she knew before she left: ISIS was dedicated to pulling down the colonial boundaries and the states that existed between them, and to installing some semblance of Islamic law and doing away with legal systems which had colonial heritage. In the pre-colonial Muslim world, 15 was quite a normal age for girls to marry (above average in some places) and no Muslim should be echoing the comments of non-Muslims that this is rape or “sex slavery”; this would be a slur on almost every Muslim man from the time of the Sahaba to very recent times. That said, it is unacceptable for the organisation to marry her to one man after another and then send the man off to fight and die for them, not allowing them time to get to know one another, or to allow her to carry and then lose two children. That’s cruel, but then, the cruelty of ISIS was well-known outside its borders (though so was the Assad regime’s). Perhaps she allowed herself to be persuaded that it was “all propaganda”, or perhaps she thought she would only be dishing it out, not taking it.

However, her actual guilt depends on what she actually did; the media talks of her “joining ISIS” but what she actually did was move to their territory, intending to live there. She then married someone and bore his child, which makes her neither a terrorist nor a war criminal. A mere member of a terrorist organisation (the IRA, for example) is not the same as someone who has carried out a lethal terrorist action such as a massacre or bombing, though we may condemn them for condoning such actions or blaming their victims. People inspired by ISIS are known to have carried out attacks in Britain, France and elsewhere, among them the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, but the attacks have largely ceased as the state itself has been destroyed by Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish guerrilla armies (some of these forces themselves linked to terrorism), so her potential to pose a national security threat (especially if in prison!) is likely to be limited, if there is any. The government have acted not out of any concern for justice but in reaction to public hatred, itself stirred up by the commercial media. There is also no consistency in how the government have treated different people associated with ISIS; consider how Anjem Choudary, who released a video pledging allegiance to them and was imprisoned for it, was allowed to retain his citizenship despite many years of such agitation with al-Muhajiroun and its successor groups.

Four or five years ago, when ISIS was still fairly strong, I saw people in the West, including Muslims, say that people who choose to move to their territory should lose their citizenship; they should “just be a citizen of their caliphate”. That was then; the ‘caliphate’ no longer exists and the societies that it oppressed and who overran it, much to the delight of the outside world, have no responsibility to feed and house foreign ISIS recruits or settlers (some of whom oppressed them) indefinitely, nor to try them: if they do this, there will always be outsiders carping about the shortcomings of the justice system used. Bangladesh is also not responsible for Shamima Begum’s actions either. The Supreme Court was right about one thing; it is not just about this individual’s rights — the people of Syria and Iraq should not bear responsibility for a problem which largely originates in the West (right back to Abu Ghraib where the Americans tortured some of its founders). The West, including Britain, should take care of its responsibilities. But let’s not pretend that Shamima was an innocent victim; she listened to propaganda and made a choice, and her action was not on the spur of the moment.

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