The possible return of Shamima Begum to the UK is clearly causing some concern in the British media. The Daily Express says that “Shamima Begum is a danger to the UK she clearly hates”, a quote from this article says “Begum says she is no longer the ‘silly little 15-year-old girl’ who allowed herself to be groomed by Islamist militants four years ago. Indeed, she is not”. It goes on, without making any substantive allegation, to say that she is a danger.
The whole debate raises a lot of questions. Is her age relevant? What crime has she committed? Was she radicalized? What was the role of the internet in her radicalisation?
What crime has she committed?
To be fair to the Express, the article does let us know the crime that Shamima Begum is accused of committing: “At the very least Begum would have to be prosecuted for joining a proscribed terrorist organisation”, there is no suggestion of what else she may be accused.
The Government in its document ‘Proscribed Terrorist Organisations’ describes a proscribed terrorist organisation by this definition:
“Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary may proscribe an organisation if she believes it is concerned in terrorism, and it is proportionate to do. For the purposes of the Act, this means that the organisation:
- commits or participates in acts of terrorism;
- prepares for terrorism;
- promotes or encourages terrorism (including the unlawful glorification of terrorism); or
- is otherwise concerned in terrorism.”
The document includes a long list of terrorist organisations – one is ‘National Action’ described as “a racist neo-Nazi group … aimed at recruiting young people. The group is virulently racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic”. The founder is Benjamin Raymond has appeared on BBC Television and has even been featured in the Express without a call that he should “At the very least be prosecuted for joining a proscribed terrorist organisation”. Remember, he’s not just a member, he’s a founder.
So, is the issue that Shamima Begum is a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation one of the key issues? Probably not – members of the proscribed neo-Nazi group are given air time on TV and, whilst vilified, they are not condemned to being prosecuted. So this isn’t the concern… because if it was we would call for the imprisonment of Benjamin Raymond.
She is a danger to our security
This seems a little more likely – after all we are all about the security of the British people. Whatsmore, we have been subject to terrorist events from people who claim affiliation with ISIS.
There is a problem here though, and it comes in a number of layers. First is that Shamima Begum is not the first person who left Britain to live in the self-declared ISIS caliphate to return. In fact, something over 400 people had returned by 2017. None have caused quite the personal approbation that Shamima Begum has received even though some of them were known to have committed atrocities, a claim not made against her.
Secondly, we must remember that this “security” claim is made under a government whose policies have seen an increase in violent crime, a rise in hate crime and, at the same time, a reduction in police numbers and a cut back in our armed forces. Concerned about security? That may be claim subject to some question.
She may have been a child when she went…
This is about personal responsibility. The Express story above gives the defining quote, which is also outlined above. How can we possibly disagree with this?
Imagine taking part in some tomfoolery when you were 15 and being held to account for it later. Or even if you were 17. Should they be held to account? Those, like the Express in the article feel, I think, that they should. But oddly, they don’t.
In October 2017 the Express published an opinion piece by Julia Hartley-Brewer called “MeToo campaign attacks the very basis of justice”. In it Ms Hartley-Brewer says:
“The pendulum has swung a long way since the days when women who cried rape weren’t believed and, even if they were, were told to shut up and go away. But now the pendulum has swung all the way back the other way and the MeToo movement demands that women who say they have been raped must be believed. Failure to accept their word as gospel means you are a “victim-blamer”, a “victim shamer” and even a “rape apologist”. The truth is that neither you nor I know whether any of these allegations against any of the accused men are true.
Quite simply we weren’t there. We can make our own judgments, but we can never know all of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt.
Indeed, these days we don’t seem to wait for any facts at all before our minds are made up. We read an article, watch the six o’clock news, and instantly appoint ourselves as judge, jury and executioner.
Yet whether it’s a drunken teenage party half a lifetime ago or a late-night tryst in a Las Vegas hotel, the rights and wrongs of these cases don’t seem to matter anymore”.
She is, of course, reflecting on the machinations around the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a US Supreme Court Justice whilst he was being accused of rape at age 17. In this case the Express, who published it, and Julia Hartley-Brewer, who wrote it, seem to feel that proof is required, the sins of youth should be understood, we should not jump to conclusions and we should require proof “beyond reasonable doubt”.
The young people who marched through London in their protest over climate change were also derided by some Conservatives. A Downing Street spokesperson said: “It is important to emphasise that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for”. Andrea Leadsom, Conservative MP and Leader of the House tweeted “It’s called truancy, not a strike”.
Whose problem is she?
That concept about young people not being fully aware of the implications and consequeces of their actions doesn’t apply to Shamima Begum though. And in case you feel that I haven’t represented Ms Hartley-Brewer’s feeling about this specifically, a tweet published on 19th February 2019 said:
“Sorry, but Shamima Begum is OUR problem. She was born & raised in Britain. Bring her home & prosecute her as the terrorist she is & throw her in prison for decades. We can’t just leave her free to support Isil’s next attack on innocent people”.
I know that a tweet doesn’t allow much nuance but “We can’t just leave her free to support Isil’s next attack on innocent people” doesn’t seem to be holding the same standard as “Quite simply we weren’t there. We can make our own judgments, but we can never know all of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt”.
So, it isn’t really about responsibility.
What is it with Shamima Begum? Why this story when over 400 ISIS male fighters had returned by 2017? Why security concerns when the Government has reduced our security by budget cuts? Why talk about locking her up when the only crime she has committed has been committed by a middle class, white man and his only consequence was a television interview? Why the request to punish and imprison when “we weren’t there [and] … can never know all of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt”?
I cannot help but think that the natural Islamophobia of the right-wing has something to do with it, but that isn’t all of it because of the 400 ISIS fighters that have already returned. The fact that she was pregnant, although now the baby has been born, is also to blame – in other words outright sexism.
This isn’t an easy question, but there has been a self-righteous rush to judgement. I attempt to justify neither her actions nor her views; in fact, I find them abhorrent. But if we are to address this issue and retain the right to call ourselves civilised, we cannot be inconsistent. If she was responsible for her actions, then so was Brett Kavanaugh. If we cannot condemn Brett Kavanaugh, in the words of Julia Hartley-Brewer, without knowing “all of the facts beyond a reasonable doubt”, then neither can we condemn Shamima Begum. If we must condemn those who threaten our security, then we should condemn the reduction in police numbers that has led to the rise in violent crime. If we put white middle-class male members of proscribed organisations on the TV, why do we remove citizenship from Muslim female members of proscribed organisations? This story tells us that we need to take a long hard look at ourselves.