21 February 2019
Pity, Sympathy, Retribution?
Rehabilitation or justice?
By Lynda Goetz
There has been much comment, speculation and discussion in the media, and presumably elsewhere, during the last week over the case of Shamima Begum. Now 19, she left the UK almost exactly four years ago in February 2015, with two other friends, to join Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Having given birth, in a camp in Syria, to her third child over the weekend (the first two having died apparently of malnutrition), she says she wants to come ‘home’ to the UK to bring up her baby, a son she has called Jarrah (rather intriguingly, the surname of one of the 9/11 hijackers). Although Allison Pearson, writing in The Telegraph yesterday, claims that ‘Shamina Begum is the one person uniting the country – against her’, this does not appear to be strictly true and opinions are divided (although perhaps not evenly), including within the Muslim community, as evidenced by a three-way discussion amongst Muslim women on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning.
The situation is complex and has possibly been made more so by the decision of the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive her of her British citizenship. This, Ms Pearson approves of wholeheartedly, positing that such a move will receive the full support of the general population. Her earlier article on the subject on Valentine’s Day was equally vehement and uncompromising and she felt in line with the ‘much more sensible general public’ (as opposed to the ‘liberal establishment’). However, should this be an issue for public opinion or is it is an issue of ‘national security, the rule of law and due process’, to use the words of Observer journalist, Sonia Sodha? Ms Sodha was in discussion with Nikita Malik (Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism for the Henry Jackson Society) and John Humphries on Wednesday morning on the Today programme on Radio 4, and took the view that Sajid Javid was ‘virtue signalling for the right-wing tabloids’. What in fact are the legal and moral positions and should we all be clamouring for the Government to ‘ban all Isis members from returning to the UK’, like the 460,000 who signed an online petition to this effect?
Ms Begum has hardly helped her own cause with the numerous interviews she has given to news stations and newspapers. She has evinced not a jot of regret or remorse for her actions or for those of the organisation which she abandoned her family and country to join. She appears only to be sorry that things haven’t worked out for her as she dreamed they would. It seems she is relaxed about beheadings or other atrocities as long as it’s ‘Islamically allowed’. Whilst sympathising with those families who lost children in the Manchester concert bombing, she then immediately nullified that by suggesting that “it’s a two-way thing really… because women and children are being killed back in the Islamic State right now, and it’s kind of retaliation. Like, their justification was that it was retaliation, so I thought OK, that is fair justification”. Her reasoning is so flawed, contradictory and naïve and yet she sees herself as a person who was able, even at 15, to make her own decisions. Now, however, she wants ‘sympathy’ and ‘forgiveness’ from the UK. Do those who argue that she was ’only a child’ when she left, have a point? Is this, as some claim, a witch hunt? Should she, like others who have returned, be put into a de-radicalisation programme and given, at taxpayers’ expense, somewhere to live and bring up her child in the country that she betrayed?
One of the major difficulties appears to be that our laws, as they currently stand, are not strong enough to deal with traitors like Shamima Begum, who states, quite possibly correctly, that there is ‘no evidence against me’. Head of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick has pointed out that although the young woman could face questioning, the current law might not be sufficient to see her prosecuted. Ms Dick said that some who cannot be prosecuted may “still require a considerable amount of monitoring… That puts a lot of pressure on resources”.
David Anderson (Lord Anderson), a barrister and life peer who was the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation between 2011 and 2017 and who too appeared on Wednesday’s Today programme, in discussion with Fahad Ansari, a solicitor specialising in immigration law, also takes the view that there are currently no adequate laws here to deal with Isis or Isil returnees. The Home Secretary is able to remove Ms Begum’s British citizenship on the grounds that this is ‘conducive to the public good’ and because she automatically has Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother (even though she does not own a Bangladeshi passport and has never been to the country), which means that she is not left stateless. Fahad Ansari was able to win an appeal against such a decision in the case of his British/Bangladeshi clients a few years ago because Bangladeshi law goes on to say that unless a person has made a definite decision to apply for citizenship before they are 21 then it is not acquired. Clearly, as Begum is only 19 this cannot form part of an appeal in her case – although this raises the question as to whether being ‘underage’ puts her at a disadvantage and if so whether this matters.
Aside from the question of whether or not it is ‘unjust’ (as Shamima Begum in her solipsistic way sees it) to attempt to deprive her of her UK citizenship, there is the far more important and wider question of whether by attempting to deal with the issue in this manner the UK is abdicating its own responsibility.
Certainly, President Trump and the US administration see it this way, but his call to Europe to take responsibility for our jihadists seems to have met with little enthusiasm. Germany did pledge on Monday to put its own foreign fighters on trial, but, like the UK, appeared to consider that this would be ‘difficult’, because of the challenges involved in getting evidence and witness statements from Syria. The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are holding hundreds of suspected foreign jihadists and their wives and children. Kurdish authorities have called these people a ‘time bomb’ and although they have said they will not deliberately free them they have made it clear that holding on to them is fraught with difficulties. President Trump tweeted on Sunday that European allies should ‘take back over 800 Isis fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial’.
Both Lord Anderson and Sonia Sodha in their different discussions on Wednesday’s Today programme took the view that, however difficult it may be to take them back, preventing our citizens from returning was an abdication of our global responsibility. Lord Anderson, apologising for quoting Voltaire ‘so early in the morning’ said that the French writer and philosopher in writing about banishment described it as akin to ‘throwing into our neighbour’s field the stones which incommode us in our own’. His opinion was quite clear (in spite of John Humphries making out that somehow he wasn’t revealing what he personally would do if it were up to him) and later in the programme that view was shared by Ms Sodha who considered that the Home Secretary’s action was wrong both on moral and National Security grounds.
Whilst those 460,000 people who called for Isis members to be banned from returning to the UK did so almost certainly as an immediate and emotional response to what they see as a fundamentalist threat to their country, a little more reflection highlights the problems with this approach. Where are those disaffected, displaced people likely to go if banned from re-entering the countries in which they have grown up? Are they going to stay in US funded camps in the Middle East? What happens when the US (as appears highly likely) refuses to continue providing funds? Are they going to disappear, only to reappear in places where other similarly disaffected groups are gathered, ready to create further trouble in the future? Will we manage to keep them out of Europe entirely? As expensive and difficult as it may be to assume responsibility, we must, as a country, be responsible. These are our citizens who have grown up in our country and become radicalised here. Why should we expect some other country to deal with them? The Kurds do not have their own state. The terrorists are not Syrian, even if some of the atrocities may have been committed on Syrian soil, and in any case, this is a country not currently in a position to put them on trial.
Few may have any pity or sympathy for foolish, deluded and possibly dangerous Shamima Begum, but she is not, to use Voltaires’s words, a stone to be thrown into our neighbour’s field, but one rather ‘to be piled into a corner of our own’. If she needs to be made aware of the consequences of her actions, if Justice needs to be seen to be done, this is almost certainly best done by bringing her back and putting her through ‘due process’.
At the same time is does appear that we need to strengthen our own laws, including perhaps our ancient law of treason, which dates back to 1351 and has been rather overtaken by modern social and political conditions, rendering it ‘unworkable’. Last year, the Policy Exchange produced a 56-page document called ‘Aiding the Enemy’, which argued this and put forward suggestions, in what was described by several eminent people as a ‘timely document’, and the matter was discussed in the House of Commons and the House of Lords last week. Sajid Javid has said it is worth ‘considering carefully’. However, it is easy enough to see why Sajid Javid has invoked his power to attempt to strip Ms Begum of her citizenship. Whether or not this move will work, it will buy the government some time and appears to respond to the knee-jerk reaction of the public. Ms Begum’s family have already said they will appeal.
Ms Begum’s husband is a 24-year old Dutch Muslim convert and she suggested she might try to seek Dutch citizenship. The chances of her obtaining this may be remote, as she probably has an Islamic marriage certificate which is unlikely to be recognised by the Dutch authorities. Her son, who was born before the revocation of her UK citizenship, would have the right to British citizenship and her family have expressed the wish to be responsible for the child ‘rather than him being a burden on the taxpayer’. Given the situation with their daughter, this may not be a wish they are granted without much further investigation. However, the child should not be punished for the ‘sins of the parent’ and our law has not condoned this for a long time.
Forgiveness may not be most people’s response to Ms Begum’s exploits, but judgement by lynch mob is not the modern way, nor should its equivalent – judgement by the media, social or otherwise – be the alternative. Understandable reactions to those who have betrayed their family and their country should not blind us to the fact that justice is not within the gift of the public at large, but is dispensed by the courts according to the law of the land. Where our rulers and law-makers have failed is in not re-making our laws to contend with a very real threat, which woolly do-gooding liberal thinking is not equipped to deal with. The UK and Europe, as a whole, need to address this as a matter of urgency.