Graphics: Kristina Völk
The news that Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl who left Britain to join Islamic State, will have her citizenship revoked has been met with jubilation in some quarters. Writing in The Telegraph, Allison Pearson condemned TV news for portraying her as “the nation’s long-lost sweetheart,” and, bizarrely, focused most of her ire on Shamima’s choice of Jarrah as a name for her baby son. Begum could, she says, have named him “something endearing – you know, like Harry,” as though measuring one’s right to citizenship on the choice of good, solid ‘British’ names wouldn’t set an alarmingly racist precedent. Piers Morgan, predictably, said she should “rot in hell.”
It is interesting to see how those who would usually go out of their way to defend British values and the rule of law have rushed to bend the rules in Shamima’s case. Not all conservatives have reacted in this way – Anna Soubry, who often speaks good sense, made a plea for her return on Twitter, saying she should be assessed to see what risk she poses, and that “keeping people safe (including her baby) is paramount.” An unlikely plea for compassion even came from Jacob Rees-Mogg, who pointed out that Shamima was under the age of consent when she married in Syria. “She has had two babies that have died. We must have some sympathy for someone who has been abused,” he said.
Discomforting as it is to agree with Rees-Mogg on anything, on this occasion he is absolutely right. Shamima’s critics continually refer to her as a ‘jihadi bride’, a revealing choice of wording that frames her, not as a fifteen-year-old victim of grooming, but as a willing accomplice to terrorism. In interviews, she has been condemned for her lack of repentance, yet her reactions are typical of a young woman who has suffered immense trauma, having spent the last four years living under what is effectively a fascist cult. Yes, in travelling to Islamic State to marry, she legitimised a murderous ideology, and she seems somewhat unaware of this. But she does not seem remorseless, so much as wary at the prospect of return to the UK and uncertain about how she will assimilate back into life here. She admitted that it was “wrong to kill innocent people” in the Manchester Arena attacks, whilst comparing their fate to women and children killed in the fight against Islamic State. As an interviewee, some of her views are contradictory – she said that she “had the mentality to make my own decisions” yet told Sky News that she “didn’t know what I was getting into when I left.” She has expressed a desire to “rehabilitate” back into UK life and says that, if he is allowed to remain in her care, she will raise her son to support British values.
Is it really so surprising that someone who left the UK so young, was married to someone seven years her senior – which, in any other context, would be deemed sexual abuse – is, at times, an evasive or unsympathetic interviewee? Reactions to Shamima’s interviews imply that she left London as an adult, rather than as a misguided and vulnerable child. Writing in The Times, Janice Turner has suggested viewing her decision as childlike and reckless is patronising: “Must a young woman, especially a brown, Muslim one, always be deemed a limp, submissive victim?” she says. Yet it could equally be argued that in failing to acknowledge Shamima’s age when she left the UK, we are falling into the opposite trap, one that deems marginalised young people as somehow older than their years. A study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that US adults perceive black girls as less innocent than their white peers. And this is the same when it comes to social class – the victims of grooming gangs in Rotherham, as part of a white underclass, were perceived as complicit in their own exploitation. Is the status of childhood – the understanding that a fifteen-year-old cannot fully comprehend the consequences of their actions, that they are fundamentally immature – only afforded to the white middle class? Anthony Loyd, the journalist who found Shamima, says “I don’t understand how people can’t get their head around the fact that this is someone who was a 15-year-old London school girl,” and that when he met her, it was clear that she had doubts over her actions.
It may be very difficult to try Shamima in a court of law. In the Financial Times, Camilla Cavendish pointed out that marriage to an Islamic State fighter is not technically a crime under UK law, unless the Treason Act is updated to make it so. Shamima may need to be subjected to a deradicalization programme – in fact, she spoke of doing so in her interview. There are doubts as to whether her newborn son should remain in her care. But the fact is, both Shamima and her children are British citizens – it is the government’s responsibility to face the complex issue of their rehabilitation.
The other aspect of this is that, in rendering Shamima stateless, Savid Javid has established a dodgy legal precedent. Revoking her citizenship is being justified on the basis that she could apply for Bangladeshi citizenship, somewhere she has never lived. In making this decision, it will now be possible for future Home Secretaries to arbitrarily deny the citizenship of other minorities, as Stephen Pollard has argued in The Jewish Chronicle. Indeed, as we know, the Home Office has already been busy deporting Jamaicans who have lived in the UK for generations, some for serious crimes like assault, some for a one-off dangerous driving conviction. Are British values – an uncomfortable term, implying as it does that Britain has a monopoly on democracy or tolerance – truly so flimsy? Do we only respect human rights in cases where it is easy to do so? If ‘British values’ is to mean anything at all, then the idea of citizenship must be respected, no matter how difficult the circumstances.