Shamima Begum is British: Bring Her Home

When the news broke about Shamima Begum wanting to return to the UK, a couple of people said to me, in jest, that they expected I would defend her because I support ‘political correctness’…
Well, I do support her right to return and I think that the British Government should facilitate that. But not because of wishy-washy liberal political correctness but because of hard principle about what it means to be British. Or rather, what it means to be a citizen.
To recap: Begum left the UK in 2015 with two of her friends, to join ISIS in Iraq. She was 15 years old at the time. In the past few years she has had two babies who have died, and is now pregnant again. She is currently in a refugee camp in Syria.
In comments made to The Times, she does not appear to show any remorse for her actions. However, there is something about the interview she gave to Anthony Lloyd that makes me think her words are face-saving bravado, rather than genuine conviction.
The knee jerk commentary I’ve seen, heard and read about this seems to be uniformly of the idea that ‘she has made her bed and now she must lie in it.’ By joining ISIS she has effectively declared war on Britain and we should not help her get home.
I reject this. I think the British Government should be eager to bring her back.
Let us first note the fact that Ms Begum has yet to be convicted of any crime. This might sound pedantic when she is on record as having admitted to joining the ISIS cause, but without a trial, the circumstances of that act are unclear. She may have been ‘groomed’ and there might have been events in her life in the UK that pushed her to run away. And she was only 15 years old when she left. So there may be mitigating—or even, absolving—factors.
Second, she is a British citizen. That means something to me even if it doesn’t means anything to her. British citizenship is not something we grant or take away based on whether someone has done something irretrievably stupid or hideous. Even Rose West is still a British citizen. British criminals and ideologues remain our responsibility. Part of living in a large polity like ours means spending resources to manage the fact that a small percentage of those citizens are awful people.
Her unborn baby is British too and hasn’t done anything wrong. Are we going to let that kid grow up in some godawful refugees camp, ripe to be brainwashed by people saying over-and-over again ‘they abandoned us’? I think we could and should give that child a very different narrative of what the United Kingdom is and how it treats its citizens.
So let’s get Shamima Begum back here ASAP. If there are crimes she might have committed, then let the British police interview her, and charge her if they have the evidence. Let her face justice in a British court and answer to a jury of her fellow British citizens. And if she is found guilty of a crime then let her face punishment according to British law.
And if no actual crime under our statutes has been committed? Well, then let her return to Bethnal Green to have her baby. She would not be the only unpatriotic, misguided fool among the citizenry.
I would also be intensely relaxed about British social services involving themselves in the plight of her unborn child. ‘Mother was an ISIS bride’ is surely the sort of thing that would weigh heavily in their child protection risk assessments.
Likewise, I imagine other kinds of ‘services’ like MI5 and police counter-terrorism might take an interest in her. Surely she’s far easier to track and surveil if she is living in the UK rather than a tent in Syria?
It gives me no particular pleasure to defend Ms Begum’s citizenship claims. Similarly, it is not at all enjoyable to defend the free speech rights of people who are offensive and racist. But I believe that one’s commitment to a principle like free speech or citizenship is only as good to as your commitment to defend it for the worst possible person. Because if someone like Ms Begum gets consular assistance, repatriation, and a fair trial under British law, then I can be damned sure that I would get the same treatment if I unwittingly found myself in need of consular assistance, or were accused of a crime.
If we offer her support in spite of her hostility towards us, I’m optimistic that Shamima Begum will change her mind about Britain. If we rehabilitate her in the right way, she has the potential to become a powerful voice against the folly of extremism. She could eventually come to play a similar role in our politics to Maajid Nawaz, who has renounced his earlier anti-British attitudes to become a highly effective advocate for Britain and for liberal values.
And even if she does not change her mind, there is huge propaganda value in allowing her to return. What a marvellous advert for British liberal democracy it would be. What an exemplar of the Christian values that still run deep in this country. What a visible contrast to the murderous chaos of the Islamic State!

8 Replies to “Shamima Begum is British: Bring Her Home”

  1. Well said Rob. You make a very good case for British fair play. I had a long discussion with a good friend about this last night and she is of the view, that this young woman made her bed etc. It got me thinking about the limits of compassion which is another subject altogether but related. Its as if some actions mean you forfeit any right to a measured assessment of the circumstances of your actions. Even the view that she seems to lack remorse has been accepted on the basis of limited evidence. We need to understand before we judge which is not to say to understand is necessarily to excuse.

  2. I sympathise for the innocent child she has given birth to, but as a responsible young adult she has no right to come back to a country that she left in order to join a terrorist organisation. Imagine if she returned and they failed to provide sufficient evidence to send her to prison? Would you feel safe knowing she lived in the same road as you?

    1. Two things. First, “as a responsible young adult she has no right to come back…”
      She’s a British citizen. She literally does have that right.
      Perhaps you’re saying that she has morally forfeited her citizenship? An idea that feels right in theory but not viable in practice.
      But I’m saying more than that in any case: I’d feel safer with her in the UK than elsewhere. I’m astonished so many people would rather a self-confessed terrorist stay in the lawlessness of Syria than have her where we can see and monitored.
      You say

      Imagine if she returned and they failed to provide sufficient evidence to send her to prison

      I think that’s rather likely. Not that she won’t be convicted of something, but that she probably won’t go to prison. Of that happens, I would celebrate the fact that we have deployed our justice according to our rules.
      I’m frankly astonished that so many people are happy to throw all our laws out of the window because of the emotions that this case raises. It’s such a flaky adherence to the rule of law is exactly how they behave in theocracies! To ask for one rule for Shamima Begum and another rule for everyone else is entirely in-British.

  3. “Surely she’s far easier to track and surveil if she is living in the UK rather than a tent in Syria?”
    If you want to try and persuade anyone who thinks “she made her bed…” this is what you need to push.
    “If we offer her support in spite of her hostility towards us, I’m optimistic that Shamima Begum will change her mind about Britain. ”
    This is the weakest part of your argument and won’t persuade anyone. There is abosultely *nothing* she has said, or done, to suggest this. This is you projecting Rob.

    1. You’re right, Alex. I think what I meant was that showing her some kind of kindness, or at least fairness, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for her to change her mind. She’s certainly not going to change if we go out of our way to abuse her human rights, which is the course Sajid Javid seems to be pursuing.
      But I disagree that she shows no capacity for change. This piece by Anthony Lloyd, who first interviewed her in the camp, suggests she is far more open to all that than we give her credit for. And also points out that in the camps, surrounded by ex-Jihadis, she is not actually free to say what she really believes. What she says when she gets back to the U.K. will probably be very different from what she says while still within the ISIS sphere of influence.

  4. Well said Rob, I agree with you and would add that we are making great efforts to recognise CSE and developing contextual safeguarding approaches and as a young person (child by law when she left this country), I am guessing in all likelihood she was exploited and remains vulnerable to exploitation and there is so much more to learn and understand.

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