There is nothing quite like Britain engulfing itself in a polarising, national debate. The Shamima Begum dispute, having separated itself into the “she should come home” camp and the “she shouldn’t”, is no different. It seems everyone has an opinion. It has led to Danny Dyer being viewed by some as a voice of reason after his appearance on Good Morning Britain. The former-hard man turned-political commentator asserted “Who’s there to guide her, talk to her, why is she so lost within her soul?” A convincing and valid argument certainly, but one that, in my opinion, is misplaced. The inquest into the social failings of consecutive governments to engage individuals such as Begum is a separate debate.
The discussions heated up when the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, took the relatively unprecedented step to withdraw her citizenship. Generally, the Home Office doesn’t release such information to the general public. This was a bold move by a man whose day is still largely taken up by clearing up the Windrush mess, the last citizenship scandal to grab the attention of the nation. This debate however, is different, as the victims of Windrush were visibly wronged. Begum has not been wronged.
Begum has shown little to no remorse for her actions, epitomised by her quip to Sky News reporter John Sparks. Asked whether she was aware of the debate that was devouring her country of birth, she replied yes, and in her still thick London accent, continued to argue that people should have sympathy for her. The arrogance of Begum to even think such a thing pours scorn on the victims, and their families, of the three ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks on these very shores in the last four years. Children were mercilessly killed as they enjoyed an Ariana Grande concert and London revellers were murdered in cold blood on the city’s oldest bridge as they enjoyed a summer night out. Begum, as a mentally and physically stable 15-year-old, chose to join this group voluntarily. The argument that Begum was simply groomed on the internet and thus should claim little responsibility for her actions is but a by-word for a girl that was, and remains, a genuine threat to this country.
In the days of Brexit, security has been talked about consistently. Alongside the NHS, it is perhaps the only facet of the wider debate that has been talked about throughout the lead up to the referendum and the aftermath. Shamima Begum threatens this security. If she is to come back, and I imagine she will end up doing just so, there is no individual at MI5 or otherwise who can sincerely tell the British public that she poses no threat. Her answer to ITV about whether she considers herself a danger summed up both her belligerence and idiocy: “What have I done? Apart from join ISIS.” Her conditions of upbringing might have been below average, and there are certainly social questions to be answered here. However, most, if not all, fifteen-year-olds are aware that packing your bags and jetting to Syria to join a terrorist organisation that actively beheads people is not an OK thing to do. Her nonchalant statement that she was “alright” with the beheadings suggests to me, and fortunately the Home Office too, that she does not belong here.
Of course, there are sympathies to be had,
It’s vitally important to our national interest that we bring Shamima Begum back, and do it as soon as possible. Failing to do so would be an enormous missed opportunity, and she’s no doubt in danger where she is right now.
There are two different approaches to this argument, one of which rests on her status as a vulnerable British citizen and victim. She was under the age of consent when she was groomed into leaving Britain to be married.The second, more interesting argument is based on Begum’s enormously understated usefulness as an asset in the ongoing conflict against IS and its recruitment drives.
Ultimately, we will never be able to stamp out homegrown terrorism through foreign interventions, surveillance programs like PREVENT, or by any variation of our excessively punitive approach. Moreover, without an Orwellian state, we’ll never be able to anticipate every individual who wants to leave Britain and even less so anticipate every homegrown terrorist. As satisfying as it is for some, usually on the right, to yell that we need to ‘lock them up’ or that they ‘made their bed!’, it’s not an effective policy solution to the problem with which we’re faced.
We need to understand the complex triggers and conditions that lead to these situations, and we need to counter ISIS propaganda effectively if we want this to stop. Begum is invaluable in helping us achieve both of these goals.
Her usefulness when it comes to the first is relatively self-explanatory. Begum is one of very few people who have undergone a particular ideological journey and as such she is one of the best suited people to articulate it to us. She may initially be unwilling or even hostile, but she’s also still very young, and has undergone serious trauma. It would be pessimistic to the point of absurdity to believe that there is no chance of salvaging any use from her and her experiences.
When it comes to countering ISIS narratives, one of the most significant issues is the complete lack of credibility on the part of western powers. For all of the declarations we’ve signed that support human rights and the rule of law, we quite regularly and egregiously flout both. Any attempts to mount a convincing counter-narrative to that put forward by ISIS will be met with incredulity at best, and will actively reinforce existing beliefs at worst – in psychology, this is known as the ‘backfire effect’.
Begum is free from this taint. She has at least one vital attribute which the current primary actors in this information war lack, which is credibility. This makes her a not only useful but in fact necessary tool in the battle against radicalisation. If she comes back, she would be living proof that the British state is not a cold, unfeeling leviathan but instead a fair and reasonable actor. That she went abroad and returned would be clear evidence that, contrary to their claims, life with ISIS is far from rosy.
ISIS will be aware of this. By giving in to the innate urge to abandon Begum, you’re not only risking the loss of an asset but you’re playing right into the hands of ISIS, by substantiating their claims about the British.
By treating Begum more harshly than we would any other 15 year old (at time of abduction) who was lured from her home by a vicious gang and then married before having reached the age of consent, we punish Begum for the character and sins of those who mistreated her. I do not claim that she should be treated with impunity, but I do claim she should be treated fairly. This means returning to her country and facing a trial.
This, of course, is aside from the myriad additional reasons pertaining to her status as a British citizen. She’s the responsibility of the British state, not only to protect but to prosecute.
Imagine the response of our right wing if other countries started abandoning their criminals in Britain, leaving it to the British taxpayer to prosecute them. If nothing else, that should persuade those so vehemently baying for her blood.
Image Credit: BBC.