Photo Credit: Tom Morris
While the Begum case may have reached a temporary conclusion, it marks a crucial turning point for the UK in its fight against Islamist extremism and terrorism. The recent release of the Prevent review by William Shawcross sparked a debate across various media channels about the misguided portrayal of Shamima Begum as a victim. The review revealed that the UK’s ability to combat terrorism has been compromised by a feeble approach to Islamism, which sees terrorists as victims. Begum, in particular, has been elevated as a leftist icon and has been seen as the poster child for this flawed way of thinking. The rejection of her citizenship appeal is an essential first step in a series of strong measures that need to be taken to demonstrate that the UK is now taking Islamist extremism seriously.
Begum is just one of 150 British citizens who have lost their citizenship for joining ISIS. While new laws have been introduced to tackle terrorism, they are not retroactive and do not cover all aspects of the issue, meaning many returnees may not face legal repercussions at all. Speaking into the fear of Yazidi sex trafficked victim, Nadia, “My fear is that once ISIS is defeated ISIS fighters will shave off their beards and walk free as if nothing has happened.” Swap shaving a beard for shedding the burka and donning a base ball cap and Nadia’s fear speaks of Shamima Begum.
Only 40 of around 360 cases of persons of security concern who have travelled to Iraq and Syria have been successfully prosecuted. We are simply not legally equipped to sentence and detain returnees. ISIS created a system of terror that relied on whole family input. It heavily relied on its female members in a way that terrorist organisations historically have not. Therefore, we have no laws to cover “ISIS brides” and the discussion around Begum showed that chunks of “well-meaning” society do not have appetite for it.
Those that came to her defence in lively talk show debates saw her womanhood as a reason to strip her of agency. Despite being 15, therefore criminally responsible, despite being a grade A student therefore of sound mind, she is being described as groomed and trafficked. Would the same spokespersons and media platforms be taking the same tone if she had been a 15 year old boy and since been photographed branding a Kalashnikov? Begum knew what she was going to join, knew her role, knew the kind of man she would be supporting and has stated that she did not regret joining ISIS because she was able to meet her terrorist husband there, she qualifies “a type of man I would have not been able to meet anywhere else.”
Affording Begum the victim label and describing her as trafficked is a grave insult to the thousands of Yazidi girls who were bought and sold into sexual slavery and the thousands more who are still missing. It also negates the evidence that Begum actively sought out Islamic State propaganda and even stole and sold her mother’s jewellery to fund her own “trafficking.” Profiling her as a victim and placing blame anywhere other than her and the evil ideology she subscribed to is the very reason the UK has failed in its duty to prevent people from becoming radicalized. The UK must focus on tackling Islamist extremism and its appeal rather than buying into the pervasive view that a firm approach to Islamism is a racist one.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton has suggested that our focus should be on prioritizing the safety of the public, rather than the safety of Shamima Begum. He argues that the safest place for us is with her locked up and isolated. After reviewing her numerous interviews over the past five years, which include a BBC podcast series, a documentary, and a feature on the front cover of Times Magazine, it is clear that her only regret is for the fall of the Islamic State. She has spoken of difficulties only arising when ISIS lost its stronghold and with it her idea of a happily ever after was shattered. Additionally, she has spoken of beheadings as being Islamically permitted, and has not shown any deep regret or emotion regarding the victims of the genocide she chose to support.
The UK is simply not equipped, neither legally nor as a society to handle the likes of Shamima Begum. We need to build a UK that can ensure she and those that made similar choices would be incarcerated and that our society is hostile to intolerance. With an understanding of who are and who are not the victims of terrorism we can begin to develop a strengthened approach and negate the possibility that likes of Begum become a beacon of inspiration for UK Islamists.