The curious case of Shamima Begum
Shamima is not accused of anything other than willingly leaving to join a terrorist organisation, although she has asked for forgiveness for being ‘young and naive’. If there is a possibility that she could be reintegrated safely back into society, it is something that should seriously be considered.
The case of Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase—three British teenagers who ran away from home in London in 2015 to join the IS as jihadi brides—captured the attention of the world. They weren’t the first British citizens to defect to the IS, and nor were they the last, but the sight of them crossing airport security to go on to their new lives made me feel intensely sorry for them, and for their families. I cannot imagine what they thought they were going to, but I knew instinctively that it would not be the new world order that they had probably been sold, the new world order they thought they were joining.
From left to right: Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase, and Shamima Begum
I remember being fifteen; I was a quiet introvert who found deep joy in my books, and I wrote poetry all the time, scribbling on surfaces that weren’t meant for words. I nursed a dream of going to New York City to study acting (something I never ended up doing), and when I wasn’t reading for fun I was reading school books. I wasn’t a brilliant student; I was average, except when it came to history and literature – two subjects I excelled in.
I try to imagine now whether I – under different circumstances – would have ever considered running away from home to join an organisation like the IS, and I know that I would never have considered it, especially if I’d had access to the violent videos that the IS put out as propaganda. But if I’d been religious, and been a different person, and lived a different life, and if I’d had friends who were considering it... Would they have influenced me into following in their footsteps? Who knows? One is so vulnerable at that age, and so easily influenced.
Shamima Begum and the other girls were married to IS fighters and she presumably settled down to her new life in an IS stronghold in her new role as a jihadi bride, as someone’s wife. The world moved on; the girls were written off by everyone except – presumably – their families. I wonder if life lived up to the expectations they’d had or whether they’d been bitterly disappointed. I also wonder if they ever suffered bouts of homesickness for England, for their families, for the lives that they’d left behind.
Fast-forward four years and Shamima Begum has recently resurfaced in a refugee camp in Syria, pregnant and begging to be allowed to ‘go back home’ to ‘live quietly’ with her child. She had already lost two babies to sickness and was desperate to save her third. She professed ignorance of the worst crimes of the IS, although I find this difficult to believe; I’m willing to make some allowances for the fact that she was fifteen and wasn’t fully aware of the consequences of the decision she made, but I’m not going to believe that she had no idea about the various crimes of the IS. She also attempted to justify the horrifying institutionalised rapes of Yazidi women, and defended the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017, claiming it was no worse than the western airstrikes against Syria. 22 people died at the concert; most of them were children.
Shamima Begum simply wasn’t contrite enough; she didn’t apologise enough; she didn’t say the things she was supposed to say, and people reacted with justifiable anger. The British government reacted swiftly and stripped her of her British citizenship. No country can render a person stateless (not belonging to any country), but in Begum’s case, there was a small loophole that the British government knew they could employ. As she was born to a Bangladeshi mother, there is an automatic provision afforded to her under Bangladesh’s “bloodline law” that guarantees her (until the age of 21) Bangladeshi citizenship, even if the citizenship remains dormant and unused. However, the government of Bangladesh has issued a statement saying that Shamima Begum is not welcome there.
Shamima is not alone; the UK has consistently refused to accept female IS returnees, although the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan have taken back women from areas under IS control. European countries have refused to do the same, although an argument can be made for taking back IS returnees and ensuring that they face justice for their crimes. Shamima is not accused of anything other than willingly leaving to join a terrorist organisation, although she has asked for forgiveness for being ‘young and naive’. If there is a possibility that she could be reintegrated safely back into society, it is something that should seriously be considered.
“I don’t know where I’ll end up,” said Shamima to a BBC reporter a few days ago. She gave birth to her baby, a boy who could have been granted access to UK citizenship if British consular officials had been present in Syria. Tragically, it is reported that he died at the age of three weeks after succumbing to pneumonia.
It is unclear as to how safe Shamima is in the camp; the Syrian Kurds holding her and other IS returnees want them to face international tribunals in Syria, the place where IS has done the most harm. With US forces leaving, it is feared that detained suspects and their family members could face harm. In Syria’s ever-changing alliances, they could be handed over to the regime, from where Shamima Begum – and others like her – could disappear again.