The U.K. government announced it would revoke the citizenship of 19-year-old British mother, Shamima Begum.
On February 20, the U.K. government announced it would revoke the citizenship of 19-year-old British mother, Shamima Begum, who left Bethnal Green in London to join ISIS in 2015. Her newborn baby, Jarah, was named after one of her two children who had died from malnutrition and was born in the al-Hawl refugee camp in northeastern Syria where Begum is currently living.
“I‘m scared this baby is going to get sick in this camp,” Begum told Sky News. “That’s why I really want to get back to Britain because I know it will be taken care of . . . healthwise at least.”
Jarah was confirmed dead on March 9. He was a British citizen by descent. He was failed as much by the cowardice of his own government as by the fanaticism of his mother.
The decision to remove her citizenship–which may well be overturned by British courts, was made by U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid. “My message is clear: if you have supported terrorist organizations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return,” said Javid in a statement.
Some have suggested that Javid may have felt pressured because of his Muslim identity to be seen to be tough on individuals such as Begum. If this is true, Javid is guilty of causing the death of an infant British citizen to boost his own popularity with the right wing in the U.K. It is perfectly legitimate to ask him if it was worth it.
Helen Clark, a former head of the United Nations Development Programme who served as prime minister of New Zealand, disagrees. She told Newstalk ZB on February 25 that Begum has the right to return to the U.K., stating that: “She is a U.K. citizen, she’s born there. The head of MI6 says she has a right to return.” She added: “It’s always possible that people can turn their lives around.”
The U.S. is currently facing similar issues. Hoda Muthana, the only American citizen of the 1,500 foreign women and children in the al-Hawl refugee camp, says she “deeply regrets” traveling to Syria and wishes to return home to Alabama.
“I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed,” she admits.
Like Begum, Muthana says she wants to return home primarily for the safety of her child, a son she had with the second of her three husbands, two of whom were killed in fighting. The current U.S. administration has seemingly taken a more principled position than the British government — with respect to fighters, with President Trump urging “Britain, France, Germany, and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial.” In contrast, the Trump administration has flatly rejected taking back Muthana, another young ISIS-recruited bride.
Begum was only 15 when she was recruited by ISIS and got married to a convicted terrorist and Dutch convert Yago Riedjik. Riedjik now speaks of his aspirations to take Begum to the Netherlands.
While Begum now says she wishes to return home to the U.K., she said that she does not regret her decision to leave and believes that the British people “should have sympathy” for her.
Speaking of the birth of Jarah, Begum told Sky: “I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.”
In a statement, Shamima’s family in Britain said: “Now we are faced with the situation of knowing that Shamima’s young children have died – children we will never come to know as a family. This is the hardest of news to bear.”
Whether or not she deserves “sympathy,” Begum is certainly vulnerable, having been groomed by Islamists as a minor and married to a Jihadist within 10 days of arriving in Raqqa, Syria. However, her lack of remorse is shocking to many. She has openly supported the beheadings of journalists and has claimed to have been emotionally unaffected by seeing severed human heads lying in the trash.
Begum has not expressed significantly less regret than Hoda Muthana. She has said she knew about ISIS beheadings and executions and was “OK with it.” Whether she was personally involved in such crimes remains to be determined in a court of law, assuming she returns and is tried.
Begum herself denies it: “They don’t have any evidence against me . . .. When I went to Syria I was just a housewife; the entire four years I stayed at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids. I never did anything. I never made propaganda, I never encouraged people to come to Syria.”
What is striking about Begum’s statements is her lucidity and calm. In her first interviews, she was understandably weary following childbirth, but she seems to be of sound mind. Her situation demonstrates the power that ideology can exert over an ordinary mind, especially one so young. She has called living under ISIS “a normal life — the life that they show on the propaganda videos.” Her lack of remorse is explicit in statements such as: “I don’t regret it because it has changed me as a person. It has made me stronger, tougher, I married my husband, . . . I had my kids.”
However justified emotional disgust at Begum’s views may be, emotion is irrelevant to her right to citizenship in a democratic society. Rendering an individual stateless contravenes the Geneva Conventions. (Begum’s hope of being granted Bangladeshi citizenship has been denied by the country’s foreign ministry.)
As a British citizen, she is Britain’s responsibility — a responsibility it is negligent and cowardly to shirk. Prosecuting Begum may prove difficult.
As a British citizen, she is Britain’s responsibility — a responsibility it is negligent and cowardly to shirk. Prosecuting Begum may prove difficult. Indeed, only about 1 in 10 British returnees from Syria have been successfully prosecuted. This is due largely to the inadmissibility of some battlefield evidence. However, it is the unambiguous duty of a democratic state to afford its citizens a fair trial, instead of being subject to the whims of politicians seeking short-term political gain by appealing to a mob.
Begum’s lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, has claimed that she is being “treated worse than the Nazis,” referring to the Nuremberg Tribunals following World War Two, at which Nazi leaders charged with genocide and war crimes received “due process.” This “due process” of the right to a trial before one’s peers is perhaps the most basic principle upon which British democracy is founded.
Mr. Akunjee has been subjected to online racist abuse. Meanwhile, a shooting range in the U.K. has defended its use of pictures of Shamima Begum’s face as a target.
On security grounds, it is also prudent to bring Shamima Begum home to the U.K., where she can be tried and monitored by Britain’s security services. Left to return to Syria unchecked, she is a greater risk to Britain, which she will now have grounds to resent. In Syria, she is in a better position to radicalize others or even enter the U.K. undetected to possibly carry out a terrorist attack. On all counts, the British government’s decision to revoke her citizenship is an act of cowardice and folly.
It is imperative that the U.K. government uphold the rights of Shamima Begum, not for her sake but for the sake of all British citizens. When faced with abhorrent views such as hers, it is even more important not to erode the very values ISIS and other terror groups seek to undermine. It is a time to champion, not to abandon, human rights and international law. Ignoring this responsibility is to join Begum at the moral low ground and ensure that obscenities such as ISIS continue to flourish and recruit.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.