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Shamima Begum and the possibility of restoration

19 February 2019

Seeking an answer to Shamima Begum’s plea to come home, Anna Rowlands finds resources in the work of Simone Weil


Renu Begum, a sister of Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister during an appeal for her to return home, at Scotland Yard in 2015

Renu Begum, a sister of Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister during an appeal for her to return home, at Scotland Yard in 2015

IN THE hours after the news broke that a Times journalist had located Shamima Begum in a refugee camp in Syria, I found it surprisingly and shamefully hard to settle on a view. More than a decade working alongside refugees should have made it easy, as should the fact that Ms Begum had left as a child, convinced in her immaturity and perhaps narcissism of a powerful theo-political story of jihadi life. But, in truth, I felt a range of conflicting emotions.

Ms Begum’s story tells us that the myth of easy stories and black-and-white answers rarely fits the globalised world we now live in, and seemingly finds us ill-prepared to respond well.

Ms Begum herself exists in overlapping spheres: a refugee, hovering on the brink of a permanent exile and statelessness, and a jihadi who has supported an abhorrent murderous regime. She was a child lured via online propaganda to a part of the world she knew little of, but has become an adult and a young mother whose own children have now themselves become victims of the war that she entered. This story is defined by a logic of entanglement.

The many layers of entanglement — of citizenship and terror, of childhood and motherhood, of a refusal to repent and extreme vulnerability, of one state’s responsibilities and obligations with another’s — mean that there is no easy narrative of innocence that we can reach for in this case.

Ms Begum’s life has become entangled with that of a murderous regime, and she is now living in a refugee camp in the care of, and receiving material resources from, a community in northern Syria which has itself suffered unimaginable horror. This, in itself, is a rather extraordinary act of hospitality which we ought at least to note, as we claim the moral high ground.


BUT Ms Begum has asked something of us, and we are obliged to respond. We are responsible for answering well. For this reason, this story now centres as much on who we are and the obligations that we bear as it does on who Ms Begum and her child are.

What obligations do we bear for our own citizens, including when they err in the most serious way? What are our obligations to law — in this case, when asked from a faith perspective, both natural and international law? Who do we ourselves become if we render Ms Begum and her baby stateless? What responsibilities do we bear to other states? Surely we ourselves ought not to mirror as a nation the narcissism of the individual who will not accept that our actions have moral consequences.

In addition to the bare fact of Ms Begum’s and her child’s vulnerability, there are also bare political and juridical facts.To deprive someone of statehood is to enact one of the most cruel powers in the arsenal that the liberal state possesses, and, in doing so, in a case like this, we place ourselves outside of the conventions that govern international law. This is not simply about the question who we are as Christians or a Christian nation, but who we are as members of an international community of law and reason.

But there are distinct questions of Christian living evoked by this case, too. Living in a globalised world and facing new dilemmas for which we feel ill-equipped does not weaken the Christian call to practise both love and justice. In social-media responses to this story, much has been made of the need to exercise mercy and justice in balanced measure — to provide protection and safeguard life, but to test and examine and ensure that any crime, and its mitigation, are addressed.


READING such responses, my mind turned back to some recent work that I had been doing on the French Jewish-Christian mystic and political thinker Simone Weil. In an essay on The Iliad as a poem written out of a refugee imagination, Weil writes of the need to trace in any account of love and justice the “history of force”. Weil writes that only those who have confronted the history of force can truly witness to a gospel of love and justice.

For Weil, we are required to adopt a commitment, as part of the exercise of love and justice, to addressing the truth of violence and loss. To prioritise and not to pass over this truth-telling: to tell of the death and the needless loss that have been borne by the victims.

But, in the end, Weil instructs us, telling the truth about the history of force is not likely to justify a further cycle of exclusion and loss, but to intensify the obligation we bear to witness to a counter-narrative: to interrupt the logic of war for an interval, and speak into its violence and horror the language of hospitality. There may be no immediate promise of justice, but in the abyss of war the humanity of hospitality stands in the immediate moment as its proxy.

This proxy for justice is what we perhaps owe to Ms Begum right now: an interval of care, and the promise of both a kind of justice and a form of love to come, whose shape we will have to figure out.

The answer is, then, in the end, presumably uncomfortable, but simple: we do not have an acceptable moral reason to exclude Ms Begum; and, positively expressed, we have an obligation if we are not to be changed ourselves at the hands of the twisted ideologues of our age, to witness to a belief in the possibility of a restoration beyond the brokenness and narcissism that risk, if we are not very careful, shaping both sides of this story.


Dr Anna Rowlands is St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

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