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!