There is no question that Shamima Begum is not an innocent bystander. Despite her claims that she was “just a housewife”, she shows no remorse for her decision to join Islamic State, even where specific atrocities are highlighted. In interviews last year, she managed to justify the Manchester Arena bombing as a retaliation against coalition bombing, shrugged off the horrors of the Yazidi genocide, and asserted that she was unfazed by seeing decapitated heads as they were enemies of Islam. She demonstrates a harrowing lack of guilt, remorse or responsibility for her role in the suffering caused by the Islamic State. She is, in short, still radicalised.
And yet, it is difficult to tell how much of a danger Begum actually is. Her attitude is appalling, yes, and there is the question of her radicalising others during her inevitable imprisonment. But the idea that Begum is a criminal mastermind setting up an ambush is bizarre. Even in the limited snippets of interview footage we have of her, she demonstrates a perplexing lack of tact. When journalists ask her questions that could restore sympathy for her, rather than take the opportunity, she gives lukewarm answers—she agrees with ‘some’ British values; she kind of regrets her move, but also doesn’t, because she had a good time before things got rough. She self-contradicts at times: although just fifteen years old, she understood what she was doing, but on the other hand, she was brainwashed and had no idea what she was getting into. Moreover, the UK has already returned 40% of the 900 Brits who moved to Syria. If they, in the hundreds, are not considered to pose a threat, it seems unlikely that it is out of a genuine concern for national security that Begum is being denaturalised and barred from entry to the UK.
Even if it is, though, the government might find more success keeping an eye closer to home. After all, it was not in the Middle East that Begum was radicalised: it was here, in Britain. If she is dangerous, that is a reflection of a danger that originates and exists here —denying Begum the right to citizenship will not undo this. On the contrary, it may make it worse: in the context of the Windrush scandal, the deportation of ‘non-British’ criminals, and the growing number of citizenship removals since 2002 typically affecting Muslims, there is a clear development in the relationship between citizenship and race.
This brings us to a critical aspect of the problem: that the government is treating citizenship as a reward to give or withhold from its people according to their behaviour. This is probably a large reason for which Begum’s was revoked, and why her appeal failed: to make a clear-cut example of her. But citizenship is not a cookie—it is a human right. The idea that the government sees the international law that safeguards it as an obstacle to work around should be a cause of concern to all of us.
But the irony is that even if it weren’t immoral, this strategy is largely counterproductive. Firstly, Islamic State members from abroad knowingly turned their backs on their home countries, often burning their passports on arrival. Most of them, including Shamima Begum herself, left after a growing disillusionment with the West. The chance that being rejected by their home countries hurts them is slim. Secondly, extremists do more harm abroad, where they are unmonitored. Finally, the denaturalisation of Begum feeds into the culture that, at least in part, permitted her radicalisation—that, as a racial and religious minority, she would never be considered British. But for better or worse, Shamima Begum is British. It is Britain that bears the responsibility to put her on trial and bring her to justice.
Image: Sara Wood via Flickr