Fierce national debate has erupted this past week in the United Kingdom on the case of Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old woman who ran away from her home in East London in February 2015 to join the Islamic State, and is now requesting to return to the UK. The controversy reached new heights this Tuesday, when Sajid Javid, UK Home Secretary, informed her family of an order to have Begum’s citizenship removed “in light of the circumstances.”
Begum, who left the UK when she was 15, was one of three teenage girls who travelled together from London to Istanbul, and then travelled on to Islamic State territory. All three teenagers were students at the Bethnal Green Academy. They are said to have followed and been encouraged by Sharmeena Begum, a fellow pupil at their school, who had left London to join ISIL the previous December. The story had received significant media attention at the time; going some way to explain why her case is the first to cause such enormous controversy, in contrast to the 400 Britons who have already returned from Syria. In January 2016, all three teenagers were believed to have been killed after their families lost contact with them around the time that British, American and Russian forces intensified their bombardment of Raqqa, where they were residing.
In the past week, Begum hit the headlines again when she found her way to a refugee camp in Northern Syria, having left IS while heavily pregnant, and was asking to return to the UK. It emerged that she had lost her previous two children to illness/malnutrition and she has since explained that in light of this, she left to ensure the health and safety of her unborn child. She has also suggested she could no longer withstand the living conditions in IS. A series of media interviews she has undertaken with journalists since then has not endeared her to the public. In them she had made statements expressing her lack of regret; “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago. And I don’t regret coming here.”, When she was asked about the Manchester Bombing attack of 2017, she compared it to attacks on women and children in Baghuz, and said that she thought the justification by ISIS that it was retaliation was a “fair” one. Having also been interviewed soon after giving birth, ethical objections have been raised regarding interviewing Begum in her circumstances.
Against her return
While debate around this topic has been fiery, it leans heavily towards those who argue that Begum should not be allowed to return to the UK. Home Secretary Javid has been a strong voice in the chorus against Begum’s request, however his awareness of the potential illegality of refusing her return makes his sudden decision on Tuesday surprising. While he initially warned that he “will not hesitate” to prevent her return, or anyone who has “supported terrorist organisations abroad”, in a response to a later question in the House of Commons, he admitted that the UK could not prevent the return of British citizens, as it is contrary to international law for governments to remove citizenship from those who only hold the British nationality, thus rendering them stateless. There are therefore accusations that in removing her citizenship now, he is riding the popular wave for his own political benefit. Labour MP Stella Creasy asked, “However horrific her defence of Isis, if the home secretary can start with stripping this woman and her week-old child of their citizenship for his leadership bid, where does it end?”
A sense of punishment and retribution has been echoed by the general public and other commentators. On one BBC radio show, a listener called in to suggest Begum should be left to “rot in a cage.” Piers Morgan, writing for The Daily Mail, called her a traitor, deserving “not one iota of ‘fairness’”. The argument that she would be a dangerous threat within the UK if she returned has also been espoused. Alex Younger, head of MI6, stated that someone in her position is “likely to have acquired the skills or connections that make them potentially very dangerous.”
In favour of allowing her to her return
Those who argue that she should be allowed to return, do so based on legal and compassionate grounds. Also argued is that Britain has a responsibility towards Begum, not simply because she is a British citizen, but because she was radicalised in the UK. That Begum was a minor who was groomed by a terrorist organisation has also been often highlighted.
The solicitor representing the family of Shamima Begum, Tasnime Akunjee, has said, in response to Javid’s suggestion that he would block Begum’s return, “We are surprised the home secretary does not understand international law, or care about international law.” In response to the decision to revoke her citizenship, he said the family was considering legal action. A spokesperson for Liberty, the human rights campaign group, said that Javid should observe the “fundamental principles of due process and the rule of law” and with a number of options are available to the government, including criminal law, “Taking away a person’s citizenship is one of the most serious among them and must not be wielded lightly.”
Others have stressed the grooming aspect to this case. Baroness Sal Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrat Party, stated, “We know that in that particular school three girls went [to join Islamic State], but probably more were approached. Surely our child protection laws have to kick in. As she returns we should look at what happens, as she was 15, and what happened out there.”
Writing in the Independent, Columnist Janet Street Porter argues that growing up in a “conservative, restrictive community”, it is “easy to see” why Isis’s use of other young women making promises about life in ISIS would be “appealing and exotic”. Porter states that the death of her children, the violence she had since, and the living conditions she has lived in [“utter squalor”], the torture of her husband, “is not an existence you would wish on any teenager, no matter how repulsive their beliefs.” She suggests that society is expecting too much from her after this experience for her to have the mentality stability to “repent, to appear contrite and to denounce the group to whom she has given some of the best years of her life”.
The Guardian has published a series of articles by its commentators arguing for Begum to be allowed to return. Kenan Malik argues that Begum should be allowed to return “[n]ot because she’s a victim but because she’s a British citizen. We do not yet know of her actions in Syria. But, whatever they may have been, she remains someone to whom Britain has legal and moral obligations.” Chitra Ramaswamy suggests that references to Begum as an ‘Isis Bride’ and ‘Jihadi runaway’ which has permeated reporting on the case produce a different reaction than if it was simply about a 15-year-old British teenage girl groomed by a terrorist cult, suggesting that mercy would have more likely been shown without these dog-whistling references. She argues that this case should “hold up a mirror up to Britain”, in it, “a reflection of the racist, vengeful, and weak society we are”, and that Begum has a right to return to the country “where she was born, raised and radicalised”. In light of the decision to revoke her citizenship, Robert Verkaik warns that this will turn Begum into a “martyr”, leading to more radicalisation of British Muslims. He suggests that the “government is determined to make a public example of her”.