ISIL bride Shamima Begum, whose British citizenship was revoked in 2019 on national security grounds, can return to the UK from Syria to plead her case to restore her citizenship, according to a UK court. The Court of Appeal ruled on July 16 that Begum had been denied a fair hearing because she could not properly defend herself from Syria. The verdict means that the UK government is now required to find a way to coordinate the return of Begum, who is currently being held in Camp Roj, a refugee camp in northern Syria.
This case could set a precedent for Canada and the rest of the Western world.
At the age of 15, Begum travelled to Syria to marry a Dutch jihadi who had converted to Islam and joined ISIL. After four years with ISIL, Begum, nine months pregnant, revealed her identity to war correspondent Anthony Loyd. “I am a sister from London,” she told him. “I’m a Bethnal Green girl…I’m scared that this baby is going to get sick in this camp…That’s why I really want to get back to Britain, because I know it will get taken care of, health-wise at least.”
By then, Begum’s two other children had died in ISIL territories, reportedly due to malnutrition. Loyd’s story appeared on the front page of The Times and created a social media storm.
In under a week, the UK government stripped Begum of her citizenship. While the Geneva Conventions prohibit making citizens stateless, the government justified taking away citizenship by pointing out that Begum’s mother is Bangladeshi, which means Begum might be eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. However, in May 2019, the Bangladeshi foreign minister, Abul-Kalam Abdul-Momen, stated that Begum has “nothing to do” with Bangladesh and would be denied entry, and if she did find her way there she would face capital punishment due to zero-tolerance policies for terrorist activities. “The British government is responsible for her,” he said. Three weeks after her citizenship was revoked, Begum’s baby died of a respiratory infection. She continues to be effectively stateless.
Loyd described Begum as emotionless and awkward, with no discernible sympathy. Begum revealed she was not disturbed by the sight of decapitated heads of fighters in a trash can in Raqqa, by other atrocities or by the torture and murder of Western journalists by ISIL. After hearing this, anyone would see Begum as someone who does not deserve empathy. Scholar Lisa Downing has argued that it should not matter how we feel about Begum. Even so, if Begum’s intention has been to return, why has she not at least pretended to be remorseful?
Begum’s statements are precisely what I would anticipate from an indoctrinated child, spending years living within the reach of ISIL’s extreme propaganda machine. Her demeanour and lack of emotion and remorse may be a response to emotional trauma. We don’t know the full story because she has not undergone a proper evaluation with a trauma specialist. Begum’s lack of emotion matches that of many born-again insurgents whom I have interviewed.
In my fieldwork, an ex-combatant with Jundallah, an insurgent group in Iran, told me about the first time he was assigned to execute a hostage to prove his devotion to the cause. “The man was weltering around, fighting for his life, screaming.” It took multiple bullets to kill the prisoner, not the single shot he had imagined. “It killed me inside…After that experience, nothing fazes me anymore…I am dead inside.” The reality of what it means to fight for the cause shook him, and he eventually escaped to Turkey to help with a disillusionment, deradicalization and disengagement initiative. He explained that many foreign recruits want to prove themselves, to be considered insiders. They take their assignments seriously and cling strongly to the ideology to remove any remnant of hesitation, doubt or guilt.
Putting aside Begum’s lack of penitence, the first question should never have been “Where are her parents from?” but rather “What is the right thing to do?” It was much easier to strip her of citizenship and reframe the discussion in the media than to ask the hard question: Why do men and women join extremist organizations? Western-born members often have the opportunity to enjoy comfortable, middle-class lives, with the chance to advance in admired, conventional careers. Instead, they choose terrorism and commit heinous acts of violence against their fellow citizens, often at the price of their own lives. We need to rewind and ask what went wrong.
During my 2018 fieldwork, I met Jabbar, a 32-year-old barbershop owner in Paris. While he disdained acts of terror, he told me that he understood why people join extremist groups. When he was younger, with no job, and “constantly getting harassed by everyone on every occasion,” he internalized vast challenges with his identity and harboured a deep sense of alienation. He was accepted neither in France nor in Algeria, where his parents emigrated from. To be accepted as French, “you have to change your hair, switch your name to Pierre, eat pork, drink wine, and in the end, they still call you a cosmopolitan Muslim.” He was also ridiculed in Algeria and was not considered a true Algerian because of his accent and clothing. He asserted that was why second-generation youths feel alienated and excluded.
Begum’s case is an example of how citizenship, along with other rights often taken for granted by the majority, is variable and portrayed as a privilege for those whose parents or grandparents are immigrants.
In a story that made headlines recently, a sales manager named Mohamed Amghar described being coerced to change his name to Antoine, a traditional French name, at work. He is suing his former firm for 440,000 euros and filing a discrimination complaint. He was pressured into using the name on business cards, conference badges, plane tickets and even performance awards. “If people like me, who did what was necessary to get good jobs, to get training, to live as citizens, are besmirched and denied our rights, where are we going?” Amghar said. “I only have one name, I only have one nationality,” he added. “My name is Mohamed, and I am French.” The systemic nature of micro-aggressions, discrimination, racism and xenophobia has been documented throughout most of Western Europe, the United States and Canada. This narrative was common across my fieldwork and may be applicable for young recruits who have gone on to conduct terrorist activities, recruited by a group that claimed to finally accept them in all aspects of their being.
As part of Western governments’ obligations to fix their counterterrorism strategies, Western countries need to create an effective response for returnees. Begum’s case is an example of how citizenship, along with other rights often taken for granted by the majority, is variable and portrayed as a privilege for those whose parents or grandparents are immigrants. Insurgent groups appeal to this notion. An ISIS magazine stated, “They never will consider you an equal to the white man,” and claimed you will always be considered second-class citizens. Efforts have continued to “other” Begum for her mother’s immigrant status. All the while, politicians have riled up the public, framing her case as a decision about whether to “welcome back a terrorist.”
I am not saying Begum shouldn’t be held accountable. I firmly believe that she should be subject to criminal prosecution, if appropriate, along with rehabilitation. As I have argued before, bringing back returnees may provide the opportunity to enhance counterterrorism intelligence by drawing upon them as a resource on extremist recruitment and radicalization strategies. Perhaps even more importantly, bringing back returnees would allow the UK and other Western nations to uphold human rights by pursuing justice through the judicial system and by providing the appropriate rehabilitation. Instead, we are seeing an acceleration and cultivation of separate justice for separate peoples. Consider this: Would Begum have lost her citizenship if her parents were from Leeds?
Revoking citizenship based on parents’ immigration status sidesteps the ethical obligations that states have toward their citizens and alienates second-generation immigrants, deepening prejudices they are already well accustomed to experiencing. The UK has the opportunity to change its course and set an example for Canada and the rest of the world. Begum should have a fair trial in the only country where she has ever held citizenship.
Western nations should reconsider their stance on repatriation despite the challenges involved. They should bring home their citizens to demonstrate their commitment to justice for all and prevent the secondary effects of the cycle of alienation, isolation and othering that leads to extremism in the first place. This is part of any proper justice system and could reduce radicalization in youth in the long run. It could foster belonging, which is something the politics of fear cannot do. Western nations must look upstream and deconstruct the systems and policies in place that are riddled with micro-aggressions, structural xenophobia and outright racism to reconstruct an inclusive society that would eliminate the breeding ground for radicalization that currently exists.