THE Government’s decision to seek to remove the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old mother who left Britain to join Islamic State (IS) four years ago, was “morally reprehensible”, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said this week.
A letter sent to Ms Begum’s mother on Tuesday by the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, stated that an order had been made to remove her daughter’s British citizenship. It highlighted the inclusion of guidance on how to launch an appeal.
The removal of citizenship is possible under the 1981 British Nationality Act, but only if the person would not become stateless as a result. Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said this week that, if, as is believed to be the case, Ms Begum’s mother was a Bangladeshi national, under Bangladeshi law Ms Begum would be too.
The government of Bangladesh said on Wednesday, however, that Ms Begum was not a Bangladeshi citizen, and therefore there was “no question” that she would be allowed into the country. Ms Begum does not have a Bangladeshi passport, and has never been into the country.
In a statement issued to The Guardian, the Bangladesh state minister of foreign affairs, Shahrial Alam, said: “The government of Bangladesh is deeply concerned that [Begum] has been erroneously identified as a holder of dual citizenship. She is a British citizen by birth, and never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh. . .
“There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.” His government had learned from media reports that the UK intended to remove her citizenship rights, he said.
Bishop Cottrell said on Wednesday that moving a problem “somewhere else” did not solve that problem. “Shamima was brought up in this country. She was somehow groomed and indoctrinated into the hideous and corrupt ways of IS while she was a child.
“She was in all likelihood pressed into a marriage while she was still only 15. If she has taken any active part in the crimes of IS then she needs to be brought to justice. But that should happen in this country, the country where she was raised.
“We also need to think of her child and its future. By exercising compassion as well as justice Shamima can be enabled to face up to the consequences of her actions and be enabled to build a better future for herself and for her son.
“At the same time we can learn from her about how IS and other terrorist groups groom and indoctrinate vulnerable and impressionable young people online. As a nation, we may not be responsible for her actions. But we are responsible for dealing with the aftermath. What IS stand for and their actions in the world have caused havoc, horror and misery. It is an affront to all that is decent and true. But we do not help the situation by failing to act with decency ourselves.”
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that enabling Ms Begum to come to back to the UK would “give us an opportunity to show that we as a country deal with difficulties using due process. It would give us an opportunity to assess whether she is actually a risk and send out a powerful signal to other young people about the sort of values we stand for. Now we are going to lose that.”
Ms Begum was one of three schoolgirls, all pupils at Bethnal Green Academy, who travelled to Syria four years ago to join IS (News, 27 February 2015). It is understood that Kadiza Sultana, who was 16 when she left, was killed a year later in a Russian airstrike. Ms Begum, discovered last week at the al-Hawl camp in Syria, by a reporter from The Times, Anthony Lloyd, believes that the third girl, Amira Abase, may still be alive.
Mr Lloyd’s interview with Ms Begum, then nine months pregnant, revealed an apparent lack of remorse. Ms Begum spoke of living a “normal life”. The sight of a severed head in a bin “didn’t faze me at all”, she claimed. “You see it and you think, ‘oh, what has this man done to Muslim women and Muslim children and who were they fighting for? . . . What would this man do if I was in front of him right now? Would he want to kill me?’”
Her decision to leave was owing to fears for her baby’s health, she said. “That’s why I really want to get back to Britain, because I know it will be taken care of, health-wise at least.”
Ms Begum was married to a Dutch convert to Islam shortly after arriving in Syria. She lost both a son and daughter while living with IS.
In an interview with Sky News on Sunday, she confirmed that she had just given birth to a son, named Jerah after her first son, in accordance with her husband’s wishes.
She said that she had been drawn to IS by propaganda videos, attracted by the prospect of having her own family and living under Islamic law. She had been aware of executions and beheadings, she confirmed: “I was okay with it, at first, because, I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamically that is all allowed.”
“I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me, for everything I’ve been through,” she told Sky. “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left, and I just was hoping that maybe for the sake of me and my child they’ll let me come back. I can’t live in this camp for ever — it’s not really possible.”
Mr Javid indicated in a piece for the Sunday Times that he was considering stripping Ms Begum of her citizenship.
“My priority is to ensure the safety and security of this country — and I will not let anything jeopardise that,” he wrote. “The decisions available to us include banning non-British individuals from the UK and stripping dangerous individuals of their British citizenship. This ‘deprivation’ power has so far been exercised more than 100 times.
“We must, of course, use such powers very carefully. And as we will not make individuals stateless, we must be realistic that those whom we are unable to deprive of their British citizenship may seek to make their way back to the UK.
“Those who do manage to return should be ready to be questioned, investigated, and potentially prosecuted — regardless of their age or gender.”
He concluded: “As a father I feel compassion for any child born or brought into a conflict zone. But in considering what actions need to be taken now, I have to think about the safety and security of children living in our country. I think about the children that could in future get caught up in dangerous groups if we don’t take a firm stance against those who support them. And I think about the children who have been killed in evil attacks like the one in Manchester.
“I will do everything I can to stop a tragedy like that happening in Britain again. And that means sending a message to those who have backed terrorism: there will be consequences.”
Ben Wallace, the security minister, has insisted that British lives would not be risked to retrieve Ms Begum from Syria, where Britain has no consulate.
The head of MI6, Alex Younger, has emphasised that “British nationals have a right to come to the UK.” But he warned: “It requires a significant level of resource to ensure they don’t pose a threat to the public.”
Prior to Mr Javid’s decision, C of E bishops focused on the vulnerability of Ms Begum’s son, born on Sunday.
“The theological principle that I believe is most pertinent in this case is the Christian responsibility to protect the vulnerable,” Dr Alan Smith, said on Monday. “Clearly Shamima Begum’s new-born baby is vulnerable, and there is, therefore, a strong case for him to be raised in this country. That leads us on to the difficult question as to whether or not Shamima Begum is still a vulnerable person.”
The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “Of course we are concerned about Shamima Begum. In the wider context, the way this issue is handled will affect community relations here in the UK. More complex and pressing, perhaps, is the question of the child. This directs our attention to the most vulnerable person in this whole situation. The consequences of what is decided will be lifelong for that person.”
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said on Monday: “I would think that, if she is a British citizen, she should be able to return to the UK, and that she would need to be dealt with fairly under the law of this country. If it was felt that the current legal framework is not adequate for such cases, the obligation is on the Government to seek to amend the law.”
Several commentators have expressed concern that it may not be possible to prosecute British nationals returning from ISIS. About 400 are thought to have returned since 2012, but Mr Wallace said last year that only 40 had been successfully prosecuted for “direct action they had carried out in Syria”.
“Western legal systems aren’t well equipped to deal with aspect of the migrant/traveller problem arising from the Syrian conflict,” Shiraz Maher, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, wrote on Twitter last week. “Western governments are resisting taking back non-combatant migrants because there are no obvious solutions to the problem.”
Ms Begum told Sky that there was no evidence that she had done anything dangerous: “When I went to Syria I was just a housewife, the entire four years, stayed at home, took care of my husband, took care of my kids. . . I never made any propaganda or encouraged people to come to Syria.”
Asked whether she had made a mistake, she replied: “In a way yes, but I don’t regret it because it has changed me as a person; it’s made me stronger, tougher, I married my husband — I wouldn’t have found someone like him back in the UK — I had my kids. I did have a good time there, it’s just at the end things got harder and I couldn’t take it any more and had to leave.”
Asked whether there was a good future for her and her son she said: “Yes, if the UK are willing to take me back and help me start a new life again, and try to move on from everything that has happened in the last four years.”
In an interview with the BBC, she described the Manchester attack as a “retaliation” for the killing of women and children in bombings of ISIS territory.
Drawing on Psalm 85 (“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”), Bishop Cottrell suggested that Ms Begum “must be given an opportunity to repent and amend her ways and enable her child to flourish. That is the demand of mercy.
“Moreover, by showing justice and mercy we have much to learn. Shamima can help us understand how young people are radicalised, and something of the inner workings of IS. Only by bringing her home to this country and seeking to satisfy the needs of justice and mercy can this happen.”
Dr Smith observed: “Although there is a responsibility towards those who are vulnerable, the Christian gospel teaches that governments need to protect society from those who would harm it. It also acknowledges the human propensity to sin or break the law.
“If and when she returns to this country, she will need to give account for her actions, and her motives will need to be tested. Those with whom the responsibility rests deserve our prayers.”
Ms Begum’s family argue that she was a child when she travelled to Syria. Their lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, told The Times that she was “a victim when she went out there at 15 years old. Our politicians are saying that she should be denied protections and due process that would have been granted to Nazis.”
Writing in The Times, the Government’s counter-extremism commissioner, Sara Khan, said that Ms Begum “lacked full agency” as a 15-year-old girl. “She had been groomed and exploited by extremists in the unregulated and arguably irresponsible world of social media, the same companies that had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into removing illegal Isis propaganda.” But her current lack of remorse was “unnerving”.
The case raised “challenging moral, ethical and legal questions”, she said. “What we cannot do, however, is abandon our values: our commitment to equality, human rights and diversity. Our fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are the very principles that extremists seek to erode.”
A ethics tutor’s view
“IN TERMS of the Christian ethic of neighbour-love and enemy-love, even if it appears risky, it would seem that the goal should be to compassionately reach out toward help and rehabilitation. There is no reason this cannot involve the careful confrontation of suspected associations with terrorism.
“If it is suspected that there was some radicalisation of the person in question whilst she was still a minor, then this might be the occasion to subvert expectations by providing not just the healthcare requested but also the counsel and support that may not be provided elsewhere.
The demand for remorse which one reads in the headlines seems like a significant case of getting the cart before the horse. Has this person been appropriately educated and compassionately confronted about the matters at hand? Why not put the UK’s best foot forward, rather than fall right into a bad caricature of ourselves?
“For Christians, at least, it should be considered a front-line victory in the war on terror to provide (rather than refuse) help and care when a so-called ‘Jihadi bride wants baby on NHS’. Carried out prudently, this would seem like a wise approach to international relations, and for Christians fuelled by the ethic of, say, 1 John 4.18 and Romans 8.15, it would provide a testament to that love which overcomes fear.”
The Revd Dr Jon Coutts, Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Trinity College, Bristol
An interfaith view
“A 15-YEAR-OLD child is groomed on line by a sophisticated criminal organisation which arranges for her, and other children, to travel across international borders for the purposes of sexual exploitation. She gives birth to two children, both of whom die due to the circumstances in which she is forced to live.
“She witnesses atrocities and ‘oppression’ (her quote), starvation and homelessness, and is worried for her own safety and that of her unborn child. All of this is while she is below the legal age of consent. She escapes these circumstances, to become trapped having to sleep on the ground, living at starvation level, surrounded by others in similar circumstances, and guarded by an armed militia. Concern for her now newly born child remains.
“A journalist, followed by a succession of others, interviews her and puts that interview in the public realm, jeopardising any criminal or legal investigation that may need to take place. She is clearly exhausted and traumatised, and unused to having to choose her words carefully. She states her time was ‘good’ in that she has grown through the experience — while sitting next to a woman in a niqab who is holding her crying newborn.
“We know from the testimony of other women in the camp that their every move is scrutinised. The suggestion that she not be allowed back into her country of origin would make her‘stateless — an action that would go against international law. All without any due process of law.
“How we respond to Shamima, and the many others who are in a similar situation, will colour how we as a nation move forward post-Brexit. Already sorely divided, and regretful of so many of our decisions, for which we will have to face the consequences — are we able to show compassion to someone who is, in effect, one of our own traumatised children?
“What is good for the soul of the people? Do we sacrifice this child in an effort to bring a nation together under the banner of revenge? Or is it about learning to treat one another with compassion, with kindness — about learning to heal our troubled souls by seeking to heal that of a traumatised young woman?
“It is time for the hostile environment to come to an end. The people we are hurting through that hostility are ourselves.”
The Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills is a former interfaith adviser to the diocese of St Albans and coordinator of UK Coalition — religious leaders and actors working to prevent incitement to atrocity and genocide