Shamima Begum

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.


      • Cable Strada

        Just as Muslims could be and were imperial subjects who were loyal to the British Empire. The Jewish community have a term for folk like that: kapos. Shamima Begum owes nothing to any country with a record of racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia and transphobia like Britain.

        • No country ows anything to people who want it´s passport just because it is convenient to them. A Brit is a person who considers himself to be one and who wants to be one. A muslim with a british passport is just another muslim.

  1. damon

    I agree that she’s our problem and belongs back in the U.K.
    My main misgivings though are about what kind of punishment and deradicalisation programme she’s going to be put though. I heard someone say on the radio yesterday that we’ve only prosecuted about 40 of the 400 people who were out in Syria and who have come back.
    She’s so high profile now that she won’t be let off very lightly like so many others, but I would be interested to know exactly what restrictions she will be put on after she serves any prison sentence.
    They probably can’t be any more severe with her than they are being to Anjem Choudry.
    Is he still free to travel about on public transport? To sit opposite people on the Underground smirking at Londoners? Would she be allowed to do the same, or walk around Tower Hamlets wearing a niqab?
    Britain seems to switch between being very lax or very draconian these days.
    Deporting people who went to school here, and having quite strong control measures against some extremists, to being incompetently useless.

  2. Everything you say is true. The Government’s obligation to follow the law is overriding. Nor do we have the right to pass on the problem to anyone else.

    But what to do with her? No idea. Some have spoken of rehabilitation, but that concept only applies to people who see themselves as in need of help. Prison implies problems of its own, since prisons are notoriously centres of radicalisation. Has anyone have any positive suggestions?

  3. Nick Wiltshire

    Agree mostly. But I find the notion that she was, as a young British teenage girl from London who even now is notably lacking in self-possession, attracted by the ideology of the Caliphate implausible. One would have to attribute to her not only a high level of intellectual independence, and an understanding of a radical Islamist view of world history, but also the wherewithal to undertake the complex practical task. As an experienced teacher of teenage people (in school) my intuition is that she is a poor candidate for a committed ideologue. Much more likely to have been a victim of childhood neglect and psychological-emotional abuse whose low self-worth and need for connection and status was manipulated by close proximate influences (likely a toxic mix of people close to her and on-line material). Shamima Begum’s awful life is almost entirely an environmental problem, not a personal one.

  4. I can’t help comparing her case with that of mercenaries, of which there have been many, in many conflicts, often sponsored by our government. Men known to have taken part in actions which have killed civilians.
    What questioning do they face on their return?
    I agree absolutely that this young woman should be very thoroughly examined, but as yet we have heard nothing of her actions, only her beliefs. Has she ever, in fact, taken part in any action in which harm was done?

  5. Nicola Beglin

    Thank you Kennan for your analysis. I completely find a home with the previous comment about mercenaries, many of them British. I applaud whoever you are (Kattrby) to bring some real information.

    • I worked as a probation officer, with a particular focus on serious parole work. Over the years I interviewed at length a very substantial number of people who had killed and/or badly injured others, whether casually, recklessly, or very deliberately. The whole point was to assess future dangerousness, to consider what should be done with them.
      One of the clearest patterns to emerge was that age changes people. Someone who was seriously dangerous when young (I suppose I am thinking of under 25) might very well not pose a great deal of risk thereafter; someone who was capable of deliberate, considered violence beyond that age needed serious attention. That is how my mind ran when thinking about questions I would want to put to returning mercenaries, versus how I would interrogate a young person like this woman.

      Beliefs? There are all sorts of beliefs. I would be more alarmed to hear a young man’s strong, firmly expressed belief that he was entirely justified in harming anyone who disrespected him, however trivially. I would be more alarmed to hear a man’s genuine belief that, as a man, he was entitled to hit and harm women. As indicators, those would trouble me more than any abstract religious or political notions, however loudly expressed, because, in this country at least, those beliefs kill far more people.

      • Edward Behr

        You were a probation officer? I think everyone is sadly aware that _statistically_ domestic murder currently kills more people than terrorism. However in my lifetime there has been many years when that was certainly not the case — and I’d guess the aggregate totals in the past 40+ years are probably quite similar. I’m pretty certain that the intelligence services (that don’t track violent misogynists) are responsible for keeping the present number of terrorist murders below murders of women (130 or so?). You plainly have a domestic violence focus. This debate concerns a committed female member of arguably the world’s most brutal terrorist organisation — one that arose from and IS driven by what you call “abstract religious” beliefs.

        Firstly, I grew up alongside and have known personally a number of people ultimately imprisoned for the use of serious violence. From knowing well one acquaintance’s top academic grades and observing the logic applied by some of the others — I hope you never deluded yourself that you could generally “see through” them at interview; because only those of limited aptitude or hard to suppress psychological / emotional deficiencies (many of whom are simply used by others), would be unable to adapt their behaviour during interviews of whatever length. Mixed in among those genuinely aiming to reform are plenty who obtained parole – simply moved up a notch to the level of intimidating and controlling/managing (less hands-on) level and served their parole ‘free’.

        “I would be more alarmed to hear a man’s genuine belief that, as a man, he was entitled to hit and harm women.”
        Any foolish man who spoke of such a belief to a probation officer whilst on parole would have to have been under the influence of alcohol/drugs or have a serious cognitive deficit, a psychological / emotional deficiency or… an imprinted value set corrupted by what you obtusely call “abstract religious notions”

        “Beliefs? There are all sorts of beliefs.” You don’t say? As though that were a quite secondary consideration. Yes there are no end of personal beliefs, but in the UK presently only “”abstract religious or political notions” have led people to use high explosives indiscriminately to blow to pieces crowds of “fellow” citizens or behead strangers on the street.

        Yes (it is a truism) that age changes people in numerous ways – for numerous reasons — and in some cases maturity and increasing empathy (having children etc) will play a part…In other cases better skills of prediction, experience of consequences and more caution regarding personal security (from the law and enemies) will be the primary underlying reason.

        Quite possibly Begum could be rehabilitated…de-programmed (from a fundamentalist upbringing that began within her family) and at yet more significant cost to the society that she and her family have shunned. From what has been revealed of her upbringing and what we see of her present attitude – neither she nor her family deserve any help from British society. And there is an argument to be made that she is plainly aware that UK law enforcement would be able to prove only a little about her activities in a lawless war zone — and a slap on the wrist sentence to a high profile traitor would do nothing to discourage others in future. The only compelling reasons to accept her back are Britain’s legal duty and ethical responsibilities to the Kurdish nation.

        • Let’s borrow and extend your idea of ‘an imprinted value set’.
          Men who think that they are entitled to harm women have such a set – far beyond domestic violence, into stalking and attacking strangers.
          Young men who think they are entitled to harm anyone who fails to ‘respect’ them have exactly such a set.
          And I have known others – PIRA members – who had a version of that set. The abstract idea of a United Ireland justified not just terrorism, but armed robbery, extortion, banal murders, drug dealing …

          For some, those beliefs may be lifelong – but we do know that time, and exposure to other value sets, can cause change. I don’t mean transformation, some sudden collapse into remorseful renunciation, but a shift from outright dangerousness. In my terms, ‘Is this person safe to release?’ No – it is not about ‘seeing through’ the flim-flam in interviews, but a pretty cautious assessment of patterns, milieu, behaviour.

          What one is often seeking is in fact betrayal. Will a violent robber betray his accomplices? Will a gang member betray other members? Will someone with an ostensibly political/religious motive betray fellow believers? Small acts of betrayal are a good sign. And remarkably common. If you can use them to cause a group to implode, to fragment, to disintegrate, through internal distrust that is a welcome result.

  6. Cable Strada

    If Daesh had lasted a hundred times as long, its record of genocide and brutality might just possibly have become comparable to the record of genocide and brutality inflicted on BAME communities around the world by the British Empire during its centuries of existence. As it is, it’s laughable to say that this misguided teenager should owe any loyalty to “Britain”. If she did that, she would be owing loyalty to the entity responsible for Daesh.

  7. steve roberts

    This is particularly difficult for me as i am a genuine long standing admirer of your work Kenan,as you may know,and yet on this occasion you have , in my opinion lost your moral compass, made a bad judgement and i believe are completely out of step with the vast majority of ordinary people in the U.K. Fundamentally it appears it is because you make an assessment based on the “normal” rule of law and the justice system which should have redemption and reintegration as part of the system. There is nothing normal here at all, neither are we dealing with law and order within national boundaries and all this entails. What we are considering is how to deal both in the present and future with individuals/groups who decide to join, in whatever capacity, a self declared enemy of the citizens of this nation and who have no qualms as to how they achieve their inhuman objectives.
    These people have, by their own conscious autonomous action, regardless of the rather poor attempt to base judgement /excuses on age,become enemy combatants on the side of people who have carried out horrendous and murderous acts here in the U.K. and elsewhere, nothing whatsoever to do with normal criminality. You also demean citizenship with a narrow legalese approach that excludes meaning and values on these very serious matters, we are all been tested and i think on this occasion you have failed. If you are interested i have responded to two very different articles on this question recently on Spiked and had a number of FB conversations on Sandy Starrs timeline, i reiterate i write this with a heavy heart but cannot accept your position on this occasion.

    • You go to the heart of the matter when you write “You also demean citizenship with a narrow legalese approach that excludes meaning and values.” Citizenship *is* a legally defined term, and as I understand it the UK Government has no legal basis for preventing a citizen from re-entering the country. To make citizenship dependent on acceptance of “meaning and values”, as assessed, presumably, by the Government, is to replace the rule of law by tyranny.

      As I said before, I have no good suggestions here, but denying entry if she is legally entitled to it is not an option.


        That’s partly correct, on this issue,an extremely serious one where over 400 jihadists are roaming this nation , ex enemy combatants ,many people are hiding behind the “legal” be it over age or legal citizenship, the geneva convention etc, it is an avoidance of what is in essence a moral and political question around sovereignty and particularly citizenship. Yes the moral questions are formalised in law as they thought to be but they should always be defined by the citizens especially on fundamental questions of which this issue is one. You seem to define the decisions, moral or otherwise that should be made by the citizens of this nation as tyrannical, who would you prefer forms and directs questions that are formulated into law ? To reiterate this is not some academic debate, we have people who are technically citizens who have taken sides actively or not against the citizens of this nation and carried out murderous acts to that end, this is very serious, not unique but vital to engage with . Hiding behind even present law will not suffice, we did not get where we are now, inadequate as it may be, by always accepting the status quo of the law particularly when we all face threats to all of us as we do now .

        • I am discussing here the narrow issue of legality, and the broad consequences of allowing Government to set legality aside. Where the law is inadequate, it can be changed, and there are people elected to do this.

          The Home Secretary has now revoked her citizenship. If he was within his legal rights, we can discuss the wisdom of his decision, bearing in mind your arguments, and Malik’s, and the fact that she will now be roaming loose somewhere. if he was not within his legal rights,I invite you to consider the implications of the Home Secretary acting illegally.

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