IS bride Shamima Begum is Britain's problem

IS bride Shamima Begum is Britain's problem
Comment: Britain created the circumstances under which Begum chose to leave. This is our mess to clean up, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
4 min read
18 Feb, 2019
'We do not - or should not - get to ban people we dislike' [Getty]
It seems everyone has an opinion on what to do about Shamima Begum, the teenager who fled the UK to join Islamic State group (IS) in Syria in 2015, aged 15.

Last week she was tracked down to a refugee camp in Syria, nine months pregnant and seemingly unrepentant. Begum, who is now aged 19, asked to be allowed to return to the United Kingdom to live with her baby. Yesterday it was announced that she had given birth to a son.

Public discourse in Britain has been granted long-awaited respite from Brexit discussions, as the nation stumbles over itself to proclaim what should be done about Shamima Begum.

Most vocal are those who believe the fitting punishment for siding with the enemy is exile; strip her of her nationality. Others have called for her rehabilitation and have questioned the objectivity of the interview; she was a child when she was groomed; she's not media savvy.

But all of these opinions are missing the point. The discussion should not focus on Shamima Begum, or any other Briton who might want to return home after joining IS.

What must be discussed is Britain's moral code, our rule of law and our responsibility to clean up our own mess. How myopic it is to view Begum's case as one about delivering a defector her just deserts - let's be honest - simply for our own pleasure or satisfaction?

Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, Britain created the circumstances under which Begum chose to leave England.

We are doomed to fight the same battles unless we make the effort to understand IS' appeal

Certainly, IS groomed and took advantage of Begum and other teens, but they were let down well before that, if they believed that living under IS would be a step up from East London's Bethnal Green.

Foisting a British citizen - one who has potentially committed a crime - upon another nation is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. Are we to abandon British former IS fighters to refugee camps also? That sounds like a plan of Trumpian ingenuity.

We do not - or should not - get to ban people we dislike. This isn't your birthday party. There's a reason the legal system exists and it is precisely so that dangerous criminals can be charged, tried and sentenced, and so that they cannot harm other people.

Endorsing the stripping of passports of British citizens abroad opens the way for abuse of power by the government towards anyone they wish to cast out. without a burden of proof, trial or due process.

What are the moral standards of a country that believes a person is too dangerous to be returned to Britain, but is quite happy with them being at large in another country?

Read more: British IS bride Shamima Begum 'gives birth' in Syria

The truth is that there is nothing to fear from Shamima Begum returning to Britain but our role in her story.

If she has committed crimes, she can be charged; if she is a danger, she can be monitored; if she wants to cast off her former alliances, she can be rehabilitated.

For surely it is better that teenagers like Begum to be forced to acknowledge the harm they have done? Surely it is better that we unpick the damage done by IS groomers? Begum has said she will do anything to return home. This is Britain's chance to change the ending of this story.

Begum's plea to return would be an extraordinary opportunity to try to understand what caused three young girls to be enticed by a regime that openly subjugated them.

Our ignorance on this topic is vast and we are doomed to fight the same battles unless we make the effort to understand IS' appeal.  

Isn't this the story we want to tell about Britain's role in the fiasco? Not that we led these teenagers away, but that they wanted to return and that we rehabilitated them to become better citizens?

I don't have a lot of sympathy for Shamima Begum, and the little that I do have is due to her status as a minor when she was groomed and married.

Begum has said she will do anything to return home. This is Britain's chance to change the ending of this story

But she is an adult today and is responsible for her words, actions, and apparent unrepentance. But then, my personal feelings on the matter should be of little consequence, as should yours.

Citizenship, despite what Theresa May has said, is not a privilege; it is a right and a legal, protected status. British citizens must not be stripped of their nationality for committing a crime and it is dangerous for us to be reaching for this pitchfork as though it is any kind of solution.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Timesthe Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English.

Her debut novel The Watermelon Boys, published by Hoopoe Fiction is out now. 

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.