Begum’s decisions inexcusable but UK must obey rule of law

Begum’s decisions inexcusable but UK must obey rule of law

Shamima Begum, now 19, expressed no regrets about fleeing her London life four years ago but said that two of her children had died and, pregnant with her third, she wanted to return. (Social media)

In February 2015, three British schoolgirls, students of the Bethnal Green Academy, left the UK to join their friend overseas. However, this was not a visit to a pen friend or part of a student exchange program — the girls left school to join Daesh in Raqqa, on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River in Syria. The case of Shamima Begum, now a 19-year-old in a Syrian refugee camp and one of the youngest British women to join the terror group, has drawn great consternation, as she has sought to lobby the British government to allow her to return to the UK. However, Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked her British citizenship last week, igniting an important debate, given that thousands of British citizens joined Daesh, with only one in 10 of those who have already returned facing any sort of prosecution. 
The case of Begum has raised important questions about radicalization, the social services, the police and indeed international law. The most important of these regards how young people, born in the UK and educated in state schools, have time and time again taken the conscious decision to join a terrorist movement overseas. There is nothing unprecedented about Daesh. British recruits historically found themselves in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in Chechnya and Bosnia in the 1990s, and thereafter in Iraq and Syria. When considering this case, trying to root out what drives young people to betray the state they know as home and display allegiance to another is critical.
Marginalization and social rejection often explain the drift toward radicalization made by young people, whether by joining urban subcultures characterized by violence or by allowing themselves to be seduced by another movement, in this case one whose frames of reference are radical Islam. The arguments of sociologists concerning the integration of the children of immigrants can be organized into three groups: The most optimistic analyzes represent the identity crisis of these generations as inherent in the construction of a multicultural society; the most pragmatic argue that the integration efforts made by these generations are much more committed than those made by their parents, who stoically accepted their functional marginalization; and the most ominous predict permanent confrontation scenarios between their communities and the state. Given the steady stream of ostensibly well-integrated young people joining terrorist movements, the case of Begum has highlighted that more needs to be done to monitor the development of young people attracted to violence and fanaticism. 

The case of Begum has raised important questions about radicalization, the social services, the police and indeed international law.

Zaid M. Belbagi

As the debate regarding Begum developed, public opinion grew steadily against her return. Those who argued for her return suggested that she be tried for any crimes she had committed in accordance with UK law. The issue is, however, that the law in respect to such cases remains very weak. The authorities have been somewhat coy in prosecuting returnees from conflict zones, given the difficulties of finding evidence of crimes in a lawless environment. Logic would dictate that living among Daesh itself ought to be a crime worthy of prosecution, but such legislation has not yet been passed — and, in the case of Begum, it would not apply retrospectively. 
Thus, for UK officials, with insufficient laws to prosecute returning extremists, stripping them of their passports has been the only course open to them to adequately punish fighters and, ergo, keep the rest of society safe. Javid’s predecessor, Amber Rudd, took citizenship away from more than 100 Daesh returnees in 2017 alone. It must, of course, be said that the striking lack of repentance of the likes of Begum does raise questions as to how their return might be conducive to the public good. Within the current framework, the home secretary faced the reality that, given returning fighters are likely to be released within a few months, depriving brainwashed recruits of their citizenship is the most exacting penalty open to him. 
Importantly, especially as the UK charts an independent course amidst a critical departure from the EU, it must be seen to show faith in its institutions and its values. The struggle against terrorist organizations is as much ideological as it is military. As they preach hate and intolerance, the UK must be seen to uphold the rule of law. Concerning such cases, the law must be changed so that revoking citizenship is not the only course of action open to the government. In stripping Begum of hers, the government has not acted illegally. The home secretary has the power to strip an individual of their citizenship on the basis that it is “conducive to the public good,” as long as the person would not become stateless as a result. Begum is thought to be eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship until the age of 21 and therefore will not be stateless. Despite criticism, Javid has shown grace in affirming the right of her newborn child to British citizenship. 
The case of Begum has attracted great attention, but, as the last of the British Daesh fighters start to return, this is a dilemma the UK government can expect to face more often. In choosing to join a bloody terrorist movement, against which the UK became militarily engaged, Begum and those like her took a decision to abuse the privilege of citizenship to a state that had provided them sanctuary from birth through aiding and abetting enemy combatants — this is inexcusable. However, for the terrorists to be defeated, countries like the UK must show magnitude in their respect for institutions and the rule of law and avoid making decisions for short-term political gain in order to send a clear message to those who seek to divide culturally diverse societies that thrive on their equal application of the law. 

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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