In 2015 three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green, London, girls who seemed as unassuming and ordinary as any other, left the UK to join Daesh (commonly known as ISIS). One of these girls was the now world-famous Shamima Begum. Shamima is the sole survivor of the Bethnal Green trio, the other girls, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana have both since died in Syria leaving Shamima as the face of the group.
In the 8 years since her initial departure from the UK Shamima has experienced a true rollercoaster of life events. From a marriage while she was underage to the deaths of three small children, set to the backdrop of life in Raqqa, a city that now stands mostly as a ruin, and a refugee camp in the middle of an arid desert. It is safe to say that Shamima’s initial expectations of life under Daesh were wrong. She now finds herself at the centre of one of the most contentious debates in Britain today. The debate of whether or not she should return to the UK, and whether or not she should regain British Citizenship.
While Shamima was one of many British citizens to make the decision to join Daesh, she is one of the most well-known, and her notoriety has wrought serious consequences. The heaviest of which is the removal of her British Citizenship. The removal of citizenship is a rare and highly controversial choice made by the British government. This is because typically citizenship is only removed under the condition it would not render the individual ‘stateless’ and that they have the ability to claim citizenship from other nations. In Shamima’s case, she has petitioned other governments with no success, namely the governments of the Netherlands (where her husband hails from) and Bangladesh (where her family origins are). In this case, the UK government argued that due to Shamima being of Bangladeshi descent she would not be rendered stateless, despite the government of Bangladesh stating that she would not be admitted into the South Asian country.
Regardless of the legality of the decision to remove Begum’s citizenship, she now remains essentially marooned in Northern Syria under Kurdish administration, with a string of failed petitions to reinstate her British Citizenship systematically revoked by the government. This is a decision that a lot of people, both in the political landscape and the general public support. There are, however, significant numbers of people who believe that Shamima should be allowed to return to Britain, for a several different reasons.
There is something crucial that we often overlook in Shamima’s story that is significant in discussing her choice to leave the UK and the subsequent events that have unfolded since. Shamima Begum is not a unique story, at all. She was one of many young people, many like her being legal children, who left the UK to join Daesh. A majority of these people, again many were children, belonged to South Asian Muslim families and were groomed online by a sophisticated and technologically adept terrorist group who stoked feelings of exclusion from British life that were exacerbated by rampant Islamophobia in our media.
In Shamima’s own words from the recent BBC Documentary The Shamima Begum Story, she grew up feeling a sense of exclusion from British life and a confliction of identity. At one point early in the documentary stating she ‘hated being Bengali’. It is no secret that particularly in the mid to late 2010s the general public’s perception of the Muslim community was one of massive animosity and systematic othering of Muslims the likes of which at times mirrored the tactics utilised in marginalising Jewish people in Europe as Nazism began to flourish in Germany. This is not to exclude that yes, Shamima Begum chose to join a group of individuals who committed deplorable acts of violence and hatred against countless people. She made a decision that most people, even if one was being groomed online (which she was) still would not make. But that does not exclude that the choice that the Bethnal Green Trio made did not exist in a vacuum. Shamima Begum, even when she lived at her most staunchly radicalised, was as much a product of the UK as she was an enemy of the UK. In many ways, Shamima Begum is a victim of a society that allows for petty divisions to stoke the flames of extremism and claim the minds and lives of young people who are searching for a sense of belonging where it often feels far too elusive.
For many people, all of that aside, Shamima still joined a radical and violent terrorist organisation. In a simple way, she made her bed now she must lay in it. Though the known details of what Shamima did while living under the control of Daesh are fragmented, her impact as a girl fleeing the heart of metropolitan London to join ISIS had a ripple effect on impressionable young Muslims, especially Muslim girls, around the world. It has been suggested that Shamima was involved in manufacturing explosive vests during her time under Daesh, something she denies. It is also suggested she was witness to public executions in Raqqa and had knowledge of numerous acts of violence comitted by Daesh. On the details of her life in Raqqa, Shamima remains fairly vague and cagey about what she experienced. This is possibly due to stress and trauma, or an attempt to minimise guilt, or more likely due to the fact that by remaining in Syria she remains at risk of violence from rogue Daesh supporters who remain fragmented across the region.
The idea that Shamima must not return to the UK is backed up by a stance taken by many that she poses a serious risk to the British public. While her involvement and connection to lingering factions of Daesh should be investigated thoroughly, it is evident that she is removed from the group and by speaking out against them publicly as she has, she already puts herself at risk. Inversely it is this potential risk that has led to many calling for her return with an immediate arrest.
Personally, I believe that Shamima should return with British citizenship. I do not disagree that her actions were wrong, but I appreciate that if Shamima were a white girl who joined a group like the IRA she would not be facing the same consequences. It is no subtle thing that the ire against Shamima is inherently a confirmation of the very vitriol many have against brown Muslim women in the UK that served as a major contributor toward her radicalisation in the first place. She, like anybody else, deserves the opportunity to hold citizenship, and as a result face a fair and balanced trial for her involvement with Daesh with a look, not for retribution, but for rehabilitation.
When we start a conversation about Shamima Begum not with what she did but why she was led to such choices, we begin to appreciate that her story is not one of a scheming mastermind festered with blinding hate for the UK. It is a story of a girl who felt ostracised and lost, swept up in an immensely effective online grooming campaign that trafficked her into a war zone, married her off in child marriage, and (whether directly or not) killed her friends and her infant babies.
Human rights are, in many ways, a complicated thing to navigate. On one hand, now as Daesh is a scattered and broken group, Shamima Begum has become more of a symbol than a person. She exists in the minds of many as the last thread of a web of terror that consumed our public psyche for years, claimed lives in atrocious violence such as the Manchester Terror Attack, and whether she has reformed or not, is a tangible target for that collective anger and fear.
On the other hand, she is a human being, who as a teenager made terrible choices and paid the consequences of them in many ways through what she endured in the violent and ultra-conservative landscape of ISIS-controlled Syria. Shamima Begum, whether we like it or not, is a reminder that human rights must be respected and enshrined for everyone. Without observing respect for human rights with equality we become no better than the organisation that radicalised her, who believed non-Sunni Muslims deserved to be murdered, that women must remain domestic servants, and that LGBTQ+ individuals and the Yazidi ethnoreligious community deserved to be systematically wiped out with impunity.
What Shamima Begum did was wrong, but leaving her marooned in the ruins of her bad decisions won’t solve anything. It will not resurrect those lost in the violence or rebuild the cities that lie in ruins now. What allowing her to return to the UK does instead begins a process of healing for Britain and especially for its most vulnerable who are susceptible to the radicalisation that claimed Shamima and the other Bethnal Green girls. There is a true power in forgiveness and moving toward rehabilitation and away from the retribution that has been delivered to Shamima.