This essay, on the debate over Shamima Begum, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the BBC’s attitude to abortion.) It was published in the Observer, 17 February 2019, under the headline ‘The possibility of redemption is central to a humane society’.
How do you solve a problem like Shamima? In February 2015, 15-year-old east London schoolgirl Shamima Begum travelled to Syria with two friends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, to join Islamic State. Last week, she was discovered in al-Hawl, a Syrian refugee camp, by the Times reporter Anthony Loyd. She is nine months pregnant and wants to return to Britain.
For some, Begum is a victim, a child brainwashed into jihad. For others, she is a villain who willingly joined Isis and should be barred from this country. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, insists that he ‘will not hesitate to prevent’ her return if necessary.
Both sides are wrong. Britain should let Begum return. Not 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.
Refusing entry to Begum would not simply keep her out of Britain. It would also force another state or organisation to take responsibility for her. The al-Hawl camp is run by the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has endured staggering loses in its battles against IS. Why should Britain now expect it to be responsible for a British citizen who helped its monstrous enemy?
Earlier this month, Sajid Javid authorised the deportation to Jamaica of 29 people convicted of crimes in this country. They were deemed ‘foreign nationals’ despite many of them having spent most of their lives in this country and being, in most meaningful senses of the word, British. Yet Javid now suggests that he might refuse entry to British citizens who may have committed even worse crimes and force other nations or organisations to take responsibility for them. That is ethically grotesque.
If Britain cannot discard its responsibility for Begum, neither can Begum evade responsibility for her actions. We should be careful of treating Begum primarily as a victim.
Yes, Begum was just 15 when she left for Syria. She was likely to have been more easily persuadable than had she been an adult. The fact remains, however, that she and her two friends chose to travel to Syria to join IS. They made their plans surreptitiously and took measures to evade detection. They might have been drawn into Isis by online handlers, but they were ideologically attracted by the idea of a caliphate.
Four years on, Begum still appears to be. She has clearly been through a terrible experience. Yet, in her Times interview, she shows little regret or remorse. She is ashamed not of joining IS but of not being ‘strong’ enough to stay with the caliphate to the bitter end. She was not ‘fazed’ by seeing a severed head in a bin, thinking ‘only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance’. There is a shocking disjuncture between her blindness to the horrors of Isis and her desire to ‘come home and live quietly with my child’.
One cannot make assessments on the basis of a single interview given to a journalist in a refugee camp in a war zone after four traumatic years. There may be many reasons for Begum speaking as she did. She may well change her views over time. A humane society always acknowledges the possibility of redemption.
In any case, views alone, however odious, should not be a matter for criminal sanction. If Begum is to face due process, it should be for her actions, not her views.
Could Begum pose a security threat to Britain? Possibly. But then she would equally do so to Iraq or Syria or Kurdistan or wherever else she ends up. It would be morally contemptible for Britain to insist that some other nation take that risk. Britain’s obligations to its citizens – and to other nations – are not diminished by the fact that those citizens may have committed appalling acts.
Begum will not be the last British jihadist wanting to return home. Many will have committed more terrible crimes. Their cases will pose even more difficult moral and political dilemmas. The principles of moral responsibility, on either side, will, however, remain the same.
What separates a nation such as Britain from the barbarism of IS, politicians often claim, is that Britain abides by the rule of law and is defined by humane values. It’s in these hard cases that we will discover how true that is.