Daesh’s foreign troops a moral dilemma for the West
What makes the tragic story of Shamima Begum, the so-called “jihadi bride,” interesting beyond the obvious is that it poses genuine and multifaceted dilemmas for British society. Regrettably, the UK government has opted for the easy, populist option and stripped her of her citizenship, preventing her from returning home. At one stroke of Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s pen, she has been made stateless. In arguing for letting her return home, there is no hint of condoning any of her actions, or of legitimizing Daesh in any way, shape or form. It is to argue that, as a British citizen, her alleged crimes should be dealt with by a British court in order to guarantee her a fair trial and also to show compassion for a child who made a gross error of judgement, but who has also been made to pay an unimaginable price for it.
By not readmitting her, the British government is relinquishing its responsibility for the actions of one of its own citizens and dumping her on those who run the refugee camps to where she recently fled, and on the international community in general. If there was a sure way to turn Begum into a martyr and consequently become, figuratively speaking, a recruiting sergeant for Daesh, it is the UK’s decision to make her stateless.
Begum’s story challenges society not only over its adherence to the rule of law and respect for international law, it also poses the question to all of us of whether we are capable of empathy when it is not necessarily our first reaction to someone who became a member of such a brutal organization. Daesh is on the verge of defeat, and its dispersed troops and the threat from them need to be addressed in a rational and cool manner, not by looking to take revenge on them or to garner some flattering headlines in the right-wing media, but by concentrating on preventing future atrocities and reflecting on what made that despicable organization attractive in the first place.
Begum didn’t make her case for being allowed to return to the UK any easier by showing no remorse, and by speaking in a casual manner about being unfazed at the sight of severed heads in bins. It might have been easier for public opinion and politicians to show more compassion toward her — she has just given birth to her third child — had she broken down in tears, begged for forgiveness and fully admitted being in the wrong, while solemnly and unreservedly declaring her love for and loyalty to her country of birth. This is the kind of reality show we have been accustomed to, but it is a complete fantasy, not only in relation to Begum, but to most if not all who joined Daesh. She was a 15-year-old child who was groomed by sophisticated manipulators on social media and brainwashed for the last four years; she has also suffered the trauma of seeing two of her infant children die from malnutrition and lack of health care. Beyond this, she has been living through one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable, which is the war in Syria. And she is still a teenager. In light of all this, can we really expect her to know right from wrong?
We must remind ourselves that two wrongs don’t make a right and that we are signed up to international conventions that prohibit making people stateless
This is exactly where the challenge lies for those countries that saw a small but not insignificant number of their citizens follow a route that is difficult for us to rationally explain and, quite understandably, instils fear in us. It is the challenge of balancing the will to punish those who were part of an organization whose actions turned our stomachs with revulsion with adherence to the rule of law and even showing compassion toward them; and, more importantly, believing that they are capable of changing and becoming law-abiding citizens. We must remind ourselves that two wrongs don’t make a right and that we are signed up to international conventions that prohibit making people stateless.
Beyond the legal view, there is also a practical security issue of balancing between the danger to society of readmitting now fully-fledged, trained militants and the risk of turning them into martyrs by preventing their return. It would be foolish to deny that some returnees, despite or maybe because of being defeated in Iraq and Syria, will likely hang on to their distorted beliefs and attempt to carry out acts of terrorism in Europe. However, as counter-radicalization and counter-terrorism experts have argued, not allowing former Daesh fighters and especially their wives and children to return only enhances that organization’s narrative of their rejection by society despite being citizens. Reducing this risk requires de-radicalization programs, international intelligence cooperation, monitoring and, in certain cases, bringing perpetrators to justice where there is evidence of violation of the law and risk to public safety.
And, in all this debate, we cannot ignore the fact that Begum and her two friends who joined her were 15 and 16-year-olds who were groomed over the internet right under the noses of the security services, the “Prevent” anti-radicalization program, their schools, and their families. This is not an attempt to exonerate them from responsibility or to deflect from it, but there is also some societal responsibility that must be acknowledged and considered.
In her recent interviews, Begum comes across as traumatized, in denial, and in despair to save her surviving child. This is where, as an enlightened society, we have an obligation to reach out to her and show compassion to her and her British baby, who is a completely innocent victim of this very sorry saga. This is not a naive call for unqualified compassion, but for a response that reflects what we claim to be our true values, while setting clear parameters of behavior for those who would like a second chance.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelber