How Do You Solve a Problem Like Shamima?
In February 2015, a group of three radicalized British girls stole $1000 worth of their parents’ jewellery and secretly booked plane tickets to Turkey. Days later, the teens were smuggled across the Syrian border, relocated to Raqqa, and married off to foreign jihadists. The CCTV footage of the ‘Isis Brides,’ as they came to be known, shocked the world. It seemed as if the jihadi threat had seeped into the very fabric of Western society, radicalising the most vulnerable from within. Back in 2015, most hoped for the girls’ safe return.
Fast-forward four years: under the heat of a hostile press, public sympathy has all but evaporated.
Shamima Begum, one of the surviving teens, has asked to return home. Found in a Syrian refugee camp by a British journalist, the now-19-year-old, has already buried two of her children and given birth to a third. In an interview, she stated, “I’m scared this baby is going to get sick in this camp, that’s why I really want to get back to Britain.” Her interview is remarkably calm and her accent unmistakably British.
In response to hostile public opinion, Home Secretary Sajid Javid took the extreme action of revoking Shamima’s British citizenship. Yet, as Javid’s critics have argued, this decision was based on neither security nor legality. Instead, the Home Secretary chose to appease the collective fear of the public, using the radicalized teen as a political pawn. Shamima has become an easy target in a time of uneasy politics. In a divided, post-Brexit Britain, the demonization of an indoctrinated citizen is a cheap-shot scored for political points.
Shamima Begum is a British citizen who should have been granted the right to return home.
In spite of Javid’s portrayal of Shamima as an unprecedented threat to national security, the return of radicalized Brits is not unique. Of the 900 British ISIS-sympathisers who travelled to Syria during the early stages of the conflict, around 40% have already returned to the UK. Moreover, every returnee was subject to criminal investigation and threat assessment. Therefore, in singling out Shamima as an example, the Home Secretary is falsely perpetuating a narrative in which radicalized defectors are incapable of reform.
The astounding lack of public sympathy is perhaps explained by Shamima's seemingly remorseless interview. When asked whether she regretted her decision, she responded, “only at the end,” and admitted that the sight of decapitated heads “did not faze her.” Yet, to take her words at face value is to undermine the coercive power of the ideological dogma she has been fed for half a decade. We must assess Shamima in context: grief-stricken, vulnerable, and radicalized. She has laid flowers on the graves of two of her newborns, witnessed the death of friends, and made choices not of her own volition, but based upon a deeply crystallized indoctrination. As much as she needs prosecution, Shamima needs support and rehabilitation.
Given the 2011 expansion of the government’s counter-terrorism initiative, ‘PREVENT,’ Shamima should be viewed as a vulnerable victim who fell through the cracks of the system. Indeed, in the same year as the schoolgirls fled, the program boasted that 150 people, including 50 children, had been prevented from entering conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. As a minor radicalized under the purview of the British government, it is our job to facilitate the incarceration and rehabilitation of this exploited victim.
This reality raises another question: why we should place Shamima’s refugee status above the 39,000 people with whom she shares a refugee camp? After such a flagrant rejection of British values, why should we let her return ahead of people who have faced the horrific consequences of her actions?
The answer is simple: she is one of our own.
Though Javid contends that Shamima holds Bangladeshi citizenship due to her heritage, the country’s refusal to recognize her as a citizen leaves her stateless in practice. Statelessness is not only illegal under international law, it is also unethical. Given the centrality of citizenship in being protected and persecuted under the law, we cannot grant the Home Secretary the power to arbitrarily dictate who is included or excluded from our country. Indeed, to do so would set a dangerous precedent of inequality between citizens. As the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Anderson recognized, given the same circumstances, he would retain the legal right to return, whereas a British citizen of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage would not. If passport stripping becomes permissible, then the citizenship of immigrants becomes contingent upon their good behaviour. Thus, citizenship cannot be a question of character; it must be an assertion of rights. Shamima left using a British passport, and therefore must be prosecuted in British courts of law.
So, yes, Shamima Begum committed a crime. But she is also a deeply misguided young woman in dire need of rehabilitation. And, critically, she is one of our own. Though public opinion may change, our responsibility to our citizens remains constant. If we value what it means to be a British citizen, then we owe it to Shamima and to our ourselves to enable her return.