In 2015, three London schoolgirls left Britain to join the Islamic State. Now the sole survivor of the trio is making headlines due to a change of heart and wants to come back to the UK. The case of IS bride Shamima Begum is the first story to disrupt the Brexit conversation in British media since a really long time.
The case has sparked discussions on how the United Kingdom (and other Western communities) should aim to deal with citizens that become radicalized and leave to join terrorist organizations such as IS.
Listening to Shamima Begum, it’s very hard to empathize. She harbors no regrets for having joined the most dangerous and murderous terrorist organization in the world and til this day is quite sympathetic to their cause. She also speaks with complete indifference of seeing severed heads of murdered IS victims in bins and callously defends the beheading of several Western journalists implying it was justified because “Journalists can be spies too”. According to several videos and interviews, she loved her life in Syria and joined because she believed in their cause and their ideologies. She also expressed support for the Manchester attacks saying they were justified because of the violence imposed in her own native country. These words are not spoken by an innocent girl who made a mistake; they are the ones of a young woman who set out with a mission.
There is the argument that people of a certain age are not really responsible for their actions but this isn’t parallel to for example Uganda’s Joseph Kony taking young children and forcing them to kill their parents, other children and turning them into monsters. Shamima Begum willingly chose this path for herself and whether or not she was fully aware of its implications, there is no doubt that she knew the risks she was taking would ultimately change the course of her life. A commitment to IS is not a reversible one. Should she be allowed back to the United Kingdom she most likely will face prosecution for joining a terrorist organization. The morality of denaturalization has been passionately debated in Parliament.
According to British law, the right to strip her of British citizenship can only be exercised if Home Secretaries come to the conclusion that the decision would be the most conducive to the public good and by taking that action, the individual not be left stateless. Since 2010, it’s been successfully implemented over 150 times. People supporting Shamima’s return to the UK often cite the human justice clause and the immorality of revoking her citizenship, and while that’s a just assessment, it must be weighed fairly against the other consideration that a terrorist could revert back to extremist ways and radicalize the population and communities thus would, in fact, pose an imminent threat to other innocents.
Removing citizenship of British geo nationals who are accused of terror offenses is no more morally unjustified than British geo nationals overseas that commit a crime in their host country; they would face prosecution, jail-time and likely be deported. British law states that national and foreign individuals who break laws on a national scale will be deported once they have served their sentence in British prisons. Shamima if she will be permitted entry back to the UK should justly be imprisoned if not deported and not entered in a reintegration program such as Prevent. Prevent is a government-run system which aims to safeguard vulnerable people and intervene in their lives before they become terrorists. The system also seeks to rehabilitate people already convicted of terror offenses. The problem with this type of reintegration of terrorist offenders back into society is that it’s not an exact science and mistakes can be fatal. In 2017, Ahmed Hassan attempted to blow up a tube train in Parsons Green; he had previously been enrolled in the Prevent program but it had not convinced him of not building an explosive device which would have murdered maybe thousands had he been successful.
Governments around the globe are increasingly faced with how to cope with citizens who are sympathetic to the Islamic state. They are struggling to resonate punishment for treason with the morality clause of the law which prohibits denaturalization. In America, Trump has openly said that an Alabama woman who joined the Islamic state will not be allowed back into the United States and Francois Hollande, former President of France, attempted stripping convicted terrorists of their nationality but was ultimately forced to abandon the initiative due to the constitution forbidding denaturalization.
The case of Shamima is not a tale of victimhood and she is not a victim. It would be detrimental to the justice system to decry legal technicalities that absolve people of moral responsibility. She was a teenager when she left, not an infant. She would have been eligible to join the British Army short thereafter had she remained in the country. She had enough agency to realize the enormity of the choice she was making. The responsibilities of the British state should not be conflated with her own responsibilities as an individual and refusing her return is not a sign of how the United Kingdom has failed its young people and its cultures, but rather a display of how they uphold the humanitarian values they swore to protect in order to guarantee the safety of this nation and its populous
Artwork provided by Leo Vodden