Shemima Begum

In 2019, Shemima Begum left Britain as a 15 year old to join ISIL along with two other school girls. In Syria she married a Jihadist and had children with him that died. She was later found in a refugee camp. The Home Secretary with Tribunal support determined that she should be stripped of her British citizenship. Although the UK cannot make someone stateless it was argued that she was of Bangladeshi descent she in fact was a citizen of Bangladesh. At this present time she remains stateless.

Shemima has appealed to be allowed to return to the UK. She says that she now disagrees with the views she held back then. She believes that she could help to prevent other young people from being radicalised. The response from some is that this should never happen, we annot forgive her and allow her to return.  As a former Jihadi bride, she would be a folk idol and focal point for Islamist extremism here in Britain.

Now, it is possible that Begum is seeking to deceive and we need to be alert to that as a potential target. However, assuming she is being truthful, I would suggest the opposite. This young woman who has renounced and denounced her past life and allowed herself to be filmed and photographed in western clothes and make-up is unlikely to be an Islamist hero. Rather, she is now a traitor to the cause with a target on her back. The greater risk will be that those who support her previous cause will want to exercise their own honour-shame justice against her.

But I want to raise two issues here. The first is with regards to her citizenship.  I am not at all convinced about the constitutional lawfulness of the decision about her status. Assuming that someone might have citizenship in another country where they were not born or raised is quite different to having clear knowledge and evidence that they hold citizenship elsewhere.  Citizenship seems to me to be something far too precious and important to be taking away at the whim of a politician and a tribunal. 

Secondly, I want to raise the issue of forgiveness. First of all, if Shemima has committed crimes under UK law then she should be tried under UK law in a UK court.   Indeed, she should be held to the same standards of other citizens. Here’s the thing. If she had been a 15 year old white girl and she’d run away with her school teacher to France, then regarding the standards she would be judged by, she would be viewed first and foremost as a victim of grooming. The reality is that Shemima was groomed by extremists. We know that this happens and we’ve invested huge sums of money and time into a system called PREVENT in order to try and protect young people from radicalisation.  I can’t help thinking that Shemima is a bit of an embarrassment to those who put their hope in the PREVENT system.

Finally, I want to suggest that if we cannot receive someone like Shemima back and seek proper justice through the UK courts, if we cannot entertain the possibility of forgiveness, repatriation and rehabilitation then we are unlikely to be able to defeat ISIL. There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you want to get people to change then you have to give them space and an opening to do so. If there is no hope of return then then there is only one life option to people like Shemima once they have been radicalised. Indeed, just as the groomer tells their victim “you’ll never be believed, you’ll never be accepted, you are ‘damaged goods’ now.” So I suspect there is a point in the radicalisation programme where the target is told “there is no way back.”

Further, by taking the position that there is no way back, no hope of forgiveness, we in fact accept the religious-philosophical position of ISIL’s ideology.  It’s an ideology that cannot offer hope of forgiveness.  How can we win when we have nothing better to offer? Of course that’s the real problem, post-modern western society cannot offer forgiveness. You need the Gospel for that.

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