Are Jihadis welcome?
Shamima Begum was just 15 when she travelled to Syria via Turkey in 2015 to join the Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) which was expanding in the wake of the country’s bloody war. Begum, born in London to a Muslim family of Bangladeshi origin, was accompanied by two other girlfriends of similar background.
On arrival Begum married a 23-year-old Isis Dutch fighter called Yago Riedijk. Over the next three years the couple had two children, both of whom died. Begum was nine months pregnant with their third when, in February 2019, she was discovered by a British journalist in a refugee camp. Her two friends are presumed to be dead.
Begum had fled the battle of Baghuz, where Daesh was then making its last stand. “I don’t regret coming here,” she said, referring to her original decision to travel to Syria, but added: “Now all I want to do is to come home to Britain.”
Shortly afterwards Britain’s home secretary, Sajid Javid, revoked her UK citizenship, justifying the decision on the grounds that she had the right to take Bangladeshi citizenship via her parents, though she had never visited the country and did not speak its language, Bengali. In addition, according to officials there, she could face the death penalty.
Begum was one of more than 100 Britons who travelled to Syria to join Daesh who were treated this way. Javid defended his response: “Whatever role they took in the so-called caliphate, they all supported a terrorist organisation and in doing so they have shown they hate our country and the values we stand for,” he explained to MPs.
British officials have argued repeatedly that Begum represents a national security risk, that she was a member of al-Hisba, Isis’s “morality police,” during which time she carried a Kalashnikov rifle and allegedly “stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests”.
Shortly after Javid’s decision, Begum gave birth to a son, Jarrah. But disease was rife in the crowded and insanitary conditions in the al-Hawl camp. The 10-day old child then died, provoking outrage about his rights as well as his mother’s.
Last week, amidst the multiple distractions that are generating news these days, the court of appeal ruled that Javid had been wrong to strip Begum of her citizenship. That was hailed as an “extraordinary rebuke to the government.” It is a divisive issue that says much about British society in the second decade of the 21st century.
The Sun newspaper, voice of the populist right, referred to Begum as a “jihadi bride” and “IS fanatic.” It headlined its report about the court ruling with the sensationalist words “Jihadis Welcome” – reflecting the feelings of many British citizens that she should still not be allowed to return.
Muslim spokesmen tend to agree. In the words of Imam Dr Taj Hargey, of the Oxford Islamic Congregation: “The moment Shamima Begum sets foot on UK soil, liberal Muslims like me have lost the battle,” he wrote. “That’s why I’m so distressed and offended by the ruling to let her return and fight to regain her citizenship. This should not even be a question. She is someone who has never shown any remorse for the horrendous things she has done.”
The Guardian, at the left-liberal end of the media spectrum, published a cartoon showing Begum with a boot-shaped union jack on her – implying graphically that she had been “booted out” of the country of her birth.
Objections to the court ruling focus on what are described as “tone-deaf liberal judges” and the work that ministers are doing to keep citizens safe. The main argument used by Begum’s defenders is that she was an underage minor, a vulnerable victim of grooming. And that she is also a British citizen whose radicalisation was missed by both the education system and security services.
“We don’t get to ‘unBritish’ those we don’t like, even if they don’t respect our laws, our values and our idea of common good,” thundered an opposition Labour MP. “Begum is not other – she is us.”
Coincidentally, earlier this month it was the 15th anniversary of the July 2005 London bombings in which 52 people died, the worst such incident involving Islamic extremists. Islamophobia has been on the rise across the UK ever since – thus the objections by the Oxford imam.
Other – directly Syrian-related – factors are also relevant. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which defeated Isis and was “rewarded” with abandonment by the US, together with Turkey, have called upon countries to repatriate their nationals who fought for Daesh, warning that they remain a threat to regional stability. Britain is not alone in ignoring those calls.
As with everything else – post-Brexit, dealing with the Covid pandemic – the Begum case is being interpreted as another example of official incompetence by the Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson – who has also been accused of Islamophobia: “The real debate we ought to be having,” urged the left-wing magazine the New Statesman, “is why the government is so incapable of tackling any problem requiring a complex solution that can't be reduced to a simple us-vs-them campaign.”