Credit: Sam Tarling

Credit: Sam Tarling

Reflecting on Shamima Begum

Alexa Downie-Ngini

Editors: Nash Croker

The UK seems to have forgotten about IS teenager and former Briton Shamima Begum, but for some reason I can’t seem to get her off my mind. Begum is a British-born 19-year-old woman who left the UK in February 2015 to join the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria with two of her school friends.

Begum told her parents she was going for a day out with some friends in town and boarded a plane to Turkey to eventually join the jihad in Syria. In February 2019, a pregnant Begum rose to prominence as she publicly stated her intention to return to the UK and was subsequently stripped of her citizenship by Home Secretary Sajid Javid. 

Since Javid’s decision to strip her of her British citizenship, Shamima Begum has stirred massive controversy in British public discourse with both sides of the political spectrum commenting with virulent force either in support of Javid or by denouncing his decision as lacking in compassion and empathy. Some argue Javid’s decision makes the UK look weak and demeans his office as Home Secretary while others ‘thank God’ for Javid’s ability to counteract the blatant attempts to make Begum the ‘nation’s long-lost sweetheart.’ What remains obvious is that the case of Shamima Begum is far from clear-cut and presents a real clash of ethics for British society. Months after the furore surrounding Begum seems to have died down, I have been reflecting on what Shamima Begum’s case means for modern Britain. 

Begum’s case was a crude exemplification of ‘trial by media.’ The hallmark of her case was Quentin Somerville’s interview with Shamima in the camp in Syria. Begum, dressed entirely in hijab, appeared remorseless and disconnected to Somerville’s questions surrounding whether she felt empathy for those killed at the Manchester arena or others who suffered at the hands of IS. She stated that she ‘didn’t know what she was getting into when she left’ but that she didn’t ‘regret it.’ She even stated that she ‘had a good time’ in Raqqa at the beginning of her time in IS.

Her obviously triggering comments pushed the British public to believe that she was thoroughly radicalised, incapable of rehabilitation and therefore could not be allowed re-entry to Britain. This hostile climate forced Javid into a situation where he had to be seen to be taking a tough stance on terror and, especially after the Windrush scandal, Javid was under pressure to prove his allegiance to the extreme right. This is the environment that lead to Javid stripping Begum of her citizenship. 

The aftermath of the decision and after watching Somerville’s interview with Begum, I began questioning whether the case would be different if Shamima was less indignant? If she did not wear hijab? If she were better able to feign remorse and contrition? If she were prettier? If she were whiter? We must question the legitimacy of decisions made in a society where we judge people based on their ability to ascribe to these qualities rather than the validity of their claim.

As Fatima Bhutto so aptly encapsulated in her Tweets following Begum’s treatment, ‘Begum’s handling by the media and the state illuminates what many of us in the global south have long known. Brown voices have no space for error, only enough cruel space to beg for but not receive what is so easily handed to white offenders: forgiveness, redemption and belonging.’ We have basically stripped Shamima of her citizenship for being unrepentant- is this the basis on which we make decisions as massive as someone’s life? 

Begum’s lawyer has rightly accused Javid of ‘human fly tipping’ in the aftermath of the decision. His decision was made on the basis that Begum was eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship so would comply with international law forbidding an individual to be left stateless. However, Begum is the responsibility of no one but the British state. As Begum’s lawyer emphasised ‘Shamima was born, raised, groomed and radicalised in the UK.’

It is London and the Metropolitan police that failed to protect the then 15 year old from being groomed by IS. It is, as Tasnime Akunjee, Begum’s lawyer, states ‘the responsibility of a British secretary of state to deal with British problems.’ Javid ‘took a British problem and illegally dumped it on our innocent international neighbours.’ There is a very British hubris and exceptionalism attached to Javid’s decision. What leads Javid to believe that Bangladesh would want her any more than Britain does? Is Bangladesh any better equipped to deal with the potential terror threat she poses any more than Britain? Of course not. If anything, Bangladesh’s relative poverty makes it much more poorly equipped.

As Fatima Bhutto highlights, Javid’s decision to dump Begum on Bangladesh assumes there is no fear in Bangladesh. It assumes that ‘those people can tolerate it but we definitely can’t.’ It is assumes that people in Syria can handle people like Begum but Britain certainly cannot. There is something very sinister and problematic with the assumption that any other country should be forced to live with the product of Britain’s inability to protect a 15-year-old East London girl from being radicalised by an international terror organisation. 

The public response to Shamima Begum encapsulates exactly what the West does not understand about radicalism. Anish Kapoor, award winning British-Indian artist, has been an outspoken advocate for Shamima Begum’s right to return to the UK. Kapoor cites a sense of being discriminated against for the colour of his skin as one of his reasons for supporting Begum. Kapoor’s motives mirror Fatima Bhutto’s assertion that ‘radicalism isn’t about religion, it is about isolation.’ Kapoor argued, in an interview with Stuart Jeffries for The Guardian, that in the UK there seems to be a feeling of ‘Who’s next?’ Kapoor stated ‘if I was a young Muslim, would I feel angry enough to have joined Isis? I would at least think about it.’

This idea of stripping nationality when suspected of crimes sets a very dangerous and unsustainable precedent. As Bhutto highlights, it tells the next generation of disaffected youths “you are not safe here.” The moment you do something wrong, we will throw you out. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, in an interview with The Guardian, echoed these sentiments. She stated, ‘my mum would say we need to have a home in Pakistan. Because when we are ‘told to leave’ we’ll have somewhere to go… and here I am, nearly 50 worrying my mum’s worry. And if that’s how I am starting to feel, how does little Ali in Bradford feel? How does little Fatima in Leicester feel?’

Fatima Bhutto’s 2018 novel ‘The Runaways’ centres on similar notions. The novel follows three protagonists, from vastly different backgrounds, on their respective journeys that lead them to join the Islamic State. When someone is continuously made to feel that they are not British, being called derogatory names like ‘Paki’ or being told to ‘go home,’ despite being born in Bethnal Green and going to Bethnal Green Academy, it is surely no wonder that a teenage girl can feel isolated enough to join an organisation which claims it will give you a political home. 

What Shamima Begum most importantly demonstrates is that British nationality is a matter of whim. Her case shows that citizenship can never protect our rights. Britain is a country with a long history of attempting to systematically rank its citizens into a protection pecking order. At the top lie white British men and somewhere closer to the bottom lie Muslim women and people of colour. Since the beginning of the 20th century Britain has been well versed in creating clear categories of natives versus outsiders or those who warrant protection versus those who do not. Since the 1948 British Nationality Act afforded any citizens of ‘the United Kingdom and her colonies’ the status of ‘British subject’ and resulted in a huge influx of non-white migrants seeking entry to the UK, the British government has continuously pandered to right-wing fears surrounding immigration and its ‘threat’ to British national identity.

The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants followed by the 1971 Immigration Act continuously restricted the rights of Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK and the cherry on top was Theresa May’s hostile immigration policy in 2012. The Windrush scandal then erupted in 2018 as a result of Britain’s relentless attempts to minimise immigration. Stripping Shamima Begum of her citizenship follows the same racist logic that allowed the Windrush scandal to come to fruition in 2018. By creating separate categories of citizens to justify whether they are worthy of protection, Sajid Javid and the Home Office have essentially told modern Britain that the only people worthy of protection are those who are able to prove that they are thoroughly British beyond reproach. Supposedly Begum’s eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship legitimises stripping her of her British citizenship as it is still in accordance with international law (which prevents countries from making individuals stateless), but what does this say for those who are living in Britain who are also ‘eligible’ for other nationalities? 

No such move has been made against Samantha Lewthwaite, otherwise known as the White Widow, the 7/7 bomber who is eligible for Irish citizenship and has been living in Kenya and Somalia for numerous years. What about the case of Jack Letts, otherwise known as ‘Jihadi Jack’? The case of Lett’s is evidence that the colour of Begum’s skin and her apparent lack of remorse played a central role in Javid’s decision to revoke her citizenship. Letts converted to Islam aged 16, dropped out of studying for his A-levels at a school in Oxford and voluntarily moved to Syria to join IS. Letts eventually left IS and is now sitting in a Kurdish jail in northern Syria.

Letts’s story seems to be strikingly similar to Begum’s but there is one crucial difference- Letts is yet to be stripped of his British citizenship despite being a Canadian dual national. Coincidence? As Owen Jones insinuates: ‘want to join Isis and keep your British citizenship? Just be white and middle class!’ The difference in the media’s portrayal of Jack and Shamima is striking. While Begum was paraded around as an indoctrinated remorseless vengeful girl, interviews with Jack circulated with him stating how he missed his mum and wanted to come home. 

What does Shamima Begum’s treatment tell would-be immigrants entering the UK? Take myself as case in point. I am a Canadian national who has been living in the UK for 5 years. After 5 more years I hope to apply for British citizenship. In many ways, I am the model immigrant. I came to the UK, was privately educated at a boarding school in Bath. I have private healthcare so have never sought publicly funded treatment from the NHS. I come from a well-off middle class family and am a national of a low-risk country, according to the Home Office. I have never been denied a visa to any country I have visited, I have no criminal convictions and contribute massively to the UK economy through extortionate London rent and my £19,000 a year university fees.

Begum’s case essentially tells me, that no matter how hard I try to be an upstanding immigrant, I will always be a second-class citizen as compared to my ‘thoroughly British counterparts.’ Because I am eligible for Kenyan, Canadian and potentially Irish citizenship, I can be cast away at any given time because of my mixed heritage. Begum’s case teaches me that no matter how hard I try I will always come in second place to John Smith from Leicester who can trace his lineage back multiple generations on both his parents sides to his little town in Leicester. I will always be a second-class citizen. So much for multicultural Britain.