From Bethnal Green to Baghuz
Sajid Javid has stripped Shamima Begum of her British citizenship - but there is a steadfast refusal to understand why she left in the first place, writes Paul Demarty
Since Shamima Begum and her two classmates travelled secretly to Syria in 2015 - almost exactly four years ago, in fact - much has changed, in both her country of origin and her destination.
Britain has seen two general elections, the capture of one of its major parties by the anti-war left, the rise of the populist far right and the transfer of the prime minister’s job to the woman who was then a hawkish home secretary, Theresa May. Britain, moreover, was successfully cajoled into a few token air strikes on Syria.
In the latter country, things have been far more grisly, of course. The women’s abscondment took place at the beginning of a long, gruelling and ambiguous imperialist counter-offensive against Islamic State, after it achieved its greatest gain of territory on either side of the Iraq-Syria border the previous year. IS was choked, inch by bloody inch, into the small districts it continues to hold in south-east Syria, at extraordinary cost in lives, by American-backed Kurdish forces and Russian and Iranian backed government and other fighters, in two non-overlapping and fractious coalitions.
Begum and her friends went to join IS, and in particular to marry one of the ‘young lions’ fighting for a global caliphate. In her interview with The Times, she expressed no regrets about her decision, even as she detailed the horror of the last few years - the loss of two infant children to disease, the imminent birth of her second son (who has now been born) in a squalid refugee camp.
It is there that she was discovered by Times journalist Anthony Loyd, whose long interview with her is fascinating.1 Begum and her two friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, joined a fourth woman, Sharmeena Begum (no relation), from their neighbourhood, who had already made it out to Syria (narrowly escaping apprehension by the security services). They immediately had marriages arranged to foreign fighters who had arrived from various countries around the world. Shamima Begum married a Dutch convert to Islam, Yago Riedijk.
As noted, the tide was beginning to turn against IS, but it would take years for the noose to really tighten, given the United States’ bizarrely contradictory strategy in the region (arm Kurdish rebels to fight IS, arm Islamist rebels to fight Syrian president Bashar al-Assad - with the result that the arms ended up with IS; and prop up the Saudi regime, which in turn at least leaked material support to the ‘caliphate’). Sultana was killed in a drone strike in Raqqa in 2016, while Riedijk found himself on the wrong side of his superiors, and was imprisoned and tortured for six months on suspicion of spying. When he was released, he was discharged from IS’s fighting forces. The increasingly desperate situation in the territorial ‘caliphate’ claimed the lives, through disease and malnutrition, of the couple’s two children. Begum states that the IS authorities, with Kurdish forces closing in on IS’s last redoubt in the border town of Baghuz, offered all those there the choice to flee or stay. Pregnant again, she left, and ended up in Al-Hawl camp, where she has found a way to make herself known to the world.
As readers will know, home secretary Sajid Javid has announced that Begum is to be deprived of her British citizenship despite having lived here all her life, and can thus be prevented from re-entering the UK. His excuse is that, since her parents were born in Bangladesh, she can be granted Bangladeshi citizenship and thus will not be made stateless.
Nevertheless, her story, and her appeal to be allowed to return, has struck a distinct note of unease in the British establishment, which in truth is in a poorer state than ever to receive it in good order. There is an aspect to the whole affair which simply scans as a heart-tugging human-interest story: a British woman, trapped in dangerous conditions overseas with a newborn baby, having lost two children already, begging for rescue. Yet this one is somewhat harder to swallow, due to the circumstances under which she left the country, and her refusal to adhere to the part of the script where she is supposed to say that she was brainwashed by evil fanatics and deeply regrets what she has done.
Her first words to Loyd, apparently, were “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago, and I don’t regret coming here.” She has expressed regret about her sojourn in Syria, but not enough, and not of the right kind, for the professionally employed counter-jihadist types of the British state core. She grieves for her children. She regrets that she did not have the strength to stay in Baghuz - the two remaining girls apparently did:
I was weak … I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved. But I was also frightened that the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on … [The others] were strong. I respect their decision. They urged patience and endurance in the caliphate and chose to stay behind in Baghuz. They would be ashamed of me if they survived the bombing and battle to learn that I had left.
So far as her regrets impinge politically on the IS regime, they are equivocal: “There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory,” she told Loyd; not that armed Islamism is doomed to such outcomes. (We are reminded of the more grim-faced prophets of the Hebrew scriptures - Jeremiah, for instance - who attribute military defeats to Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh, but promise future glory when obedience to His law is restored … ) The ‘silly little girl’ has not been disillusioned of her world outlook, in spite of all the hardship. Which is hardly surprising, really: she was perfectly happy to watch videos of beheadings and massacres beforehand. She ran towards the violence, not away from it, and can hardly have expected sunshine and lollipops at the other end.
Her instinct was to steel herself against it in the name of a higher cause; but the demands were too great - “I was weak.” In another interview, she was asked if she had made a mistake when she travelled to Syria:
In a way yes, but I don’t regret it because it’s 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, then things got harder and I couldn’t take it any more and had to leave.2
The problem, then, is that she is a little too much like us, or like we might be if we had lived through the terrors of war. For all her strident jihadism, there is something bizarrely in keeping with the English self-image of pluckiness in adversity, the spirit of the Blitz - except with the US airforce in place of the Luftwaffe. She is not a damsel in distress, exactly, waiting to be saved by generous-hearted politicians; but she does not quite match up to our demoniac stereotype of the Islamist militant, screaming a final curse, as he ploughs into a crowd or detonates a suicide belt.
So the immediate political question is whether she should be allowed to return; and if so, what sort of homecoming it will be. It is politics of the low sort which is determinant here. Begum certainly has the legal right to return - she is a British citizen, and has not taken up citizenship in some other recognised polity (the IS ‘caliphate’ certainly being nothing of the sort). With the Tories in chaos, however, and home secretary Sajid Javid among many hoping to replace Theresa May from the right, the stage is set for a great deal of securocratic scaremongering. He threatened Begum with unspecified “consequences” if she returned, for supporting terrorism, while acknowledging that she and her child were entitled to do so. Wherever a threat remained, he promised, he would obstruct the return of defeated jihadists.
We wonder idly, also, who was behind the leak of a large amount of police material on another young woman from the same east London circles - who cannot be named - but who was lifted en route to Syria (in fact, on the same plane as Sharmeena Begum, who was missed). The Times described the sort of thing found at her residence: “plans of a government building among a plethora of extremist material, including Isis propaganda that portrayed killings.”3
By such means we circle back to the initial question that dogged the great and the good back in 2015 - what makes a teenage overachiever throw in her lot with a crew like IS? So far as Loyd is capable of addressing the issue, it is with rather ham-fisted editorialisation:
Her words remained equally harsh when describing the videos she had seen of the beheaded western hostages. “Journalists can be spies too, entering Syria illegally,” she said, mouthing Isis propaganda in the manner of an indoctrinated devotee. “They are a security threat for the caliphate.”
Stubbornly he clings to the idea that she has been brainwashed, no matter how flagrantly absurd the idea is. (On this particular point - aren’t journalists sometimes spies? Surely the British paper of record has some quid pro quo with the security services - unless standards have truly slipped since its pomp.) Begum grew up in a Muslim family, sure - but in a wider environment (east London) of enormous diversity. She attended a mainstream school. ‘Brainwashing’ and ‘indoctrination’ implies isolation from wider society. Instead, the ‘silly little 15-year-old girls’, considering IS propaganda against the competing doctrines of British patriotism and liberalism, chose it.
And so, as always, the hand-wringing of the state and liberal establishment about the spread of extremism paradoxically serves as a source of comfort. In descending to the level of a hunt for the Satanic tempter (or, in this case, temptress - the ‘indoctrinator’ is alleged to be Scottish jihadist Aqsa Mahmood), the worthies of the establishment turn their faces away from the mirror, and the disfigurements thereby revealed. They are absolved from taking seriously Begum’s comparison, derided in the peanut galleries of the press, between the terror attack in Manchester and the bombardment of Raqqa, as if she somehow did not know what she was talking about, as if she was not there and did not lose Sultana, a close friend and comrade, to the tender mercies of American ordnance. They do not have to consider the effect of decades of ever more intrusive surveillance of young Muslims, of the Prevent strategy; and moreover, that these things - imperialist atrocity and domestic oppression - are the central themes of militant Islamist propaganda. The propaganda-savvy IS knew the great lesson of all demagogues and manipulators: why lie when you can tell the truth?
It is also to miss the positive appeal. The assumption is that the solipsistic enjoyment of material comfort in a middle class stratum of a first-world country ought really to be enough for anyone; that the banal freedom of consumerism offers sufficient satisfaction to the soul. But humans by their nature solidarise with others; that instinct will find a way. Militant Islamism is a perverted form of internationalism - a great struggle for the fate of the world. Even the ultra-constricted gender roles promoted by Islamist ideologues have their appeal (these young women went to Syria to demand an arranged marriage!), for they counterpose to liberal philistine views of human nature an alternative reaching more deeply into people’s lives.
That, of course, is only half the story; and the establishment worthies are equally not lying when they denounce IS as a vile gang of mass murderers, rapists and desecrators of humanity’s cultural heritage. There is a vast gulf between the self-consciousness of militant Islamism and its reality. It promises to unite humanity, but it is scarcely imaginable that ostentatiously cruel religious warfare can do such a thing. It cannot even unite more than a tiny fraction of Muslims, great swathes of whom are denounced by the insular Wahhabi doctrines of the likes of IS as dangerous heretics, and the rest of whom have no appetite for an endless, unwinnable war against everyone else. So far as the ‘IS brides’ go, there is what you would call a performative contradiction, whereby a life of total submission to men is chosen in a way that only a person educated beyond the level thought appropriate by IS’s patriarchalism could.
By way of a conclusion, communists certainly stand by Begum’s right to return to the UK, as we stand for free movement in general, and oppose the chauvinist agitation of Tory demagogues. Should she be charged with serious crimes, of which she may - for all we know - be reasonably suspected, she should face a public trial in front of a jury, not under the ever more opaque instruments imposed on us all by a creeping security state.
If she goes free, she may be reabsorbed into the militant Islamist subculture; in that capacity she will be an enemy of the workers’ movement in some small way - someone engaged in diverting dissent in the popular classes towards extreme reaction. Her crew, moreover, will not be the only one doing that kind of thing; the white majority has its own ‘tempters’, like the Gerard Batten-Tommy Robinson incarnation of Ukip and the multiplying sects of the far right, not to say a few Christian fundamentalist outfits profiting from general social dislocation.
The left, of course, once had its own sense of universal mission and its designs on reshaping everyday life; but the oxygen seems to have been sucked out of us, and narrow economism reigns (with a few shreds of identity politics borrowed from the liberals). With such a meagre armoury, and such a weak cutting edge against the state order, the fight will be punishingly difficult against the blue-sky thinkers of reaction.