Smuggled herself to Syria when she was just a schoolgirl

Woman bites dog

What was that about ‘western values’? Paul Demarty looks at the Shamima Begum case

When the court of appeal ordered the government to allow Shamima Begum to defend her citizenship in court, it provided one of the only bright spots in this otherwise dismal saga.

Begum was one of three friends who absconded from Bethnal Green in east London to Syria back in 2015, intending to marry some of the “young lions” flocking to Islamic State to fight for the ‘Caliphate’. Last year, after the IS territorial entity was finally wiped out, she identified herself to a journalist in a refugee camp in north-east Syria. She was more than eight months pregnant, and wanted to return to Britain. The government stripped her of citizenship, in an act of - let us say - dubious legality, and has attempted throughout to make it effectively impossible for Begum to mount a challenge.

After the court of appeal’s decision, Maya Foa of the legal charity, Reprieve, wrote:

The government now faces a choice. It can fight for its disintegrating policy against lengthening legal odds, while the camps holding British prisoners edge closer to total collapse. Or it can conduct a much needed reassessment of its approach, in the manner advised by security and law enforcement experts, as well as many of its own MPs.1

No prizes for guessing which road the government is taking. The home office immediately applied for leave to appeal, meaning the story will drag on for a lot longer yet (assuming the courts grant its wish). Procedural limbo, in this case, has a real human cost: after all, Begum is still in al-Roj camp, where conditions are as dreadful as you would expect (her baby died of a lung infection weeks after being born), and the danger always exists of a new wave of barbaric warfare, or an outbreak of disease, or some other disaster. Even the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, whose judgment Begum’s lawyers were appealing against, was forced to concede that life in al-Roj probably violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The legal basis for the government’s stripping of her citizenship has always been dubious. Governments are forbidden under international law from making people stateless, which is the main obstacle to revoking citizenship. The home office argues that, since Begum’s parents hail from Bangladesh, she was in principle a citizen of that country. Of course, the Bangladeshi government protested, and so are hardly riding to the rescue; it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, were the government to win in its endless struggle, Begum would in practice have been made stateless.

The balance of legal opinion seems to favour Begum, although artificial judgments are always possible. Indeed, there has been something desultory and low-effort about the home office’s approach to all this - a whiff of ‘will this do?’ It is difficult to avoid the impression that the much-trumpeted ‘security risks’ posed by this young woman are not really the point; instead, it offers an opportunity for posturing - against Muslim ‘death cults’ and politically correct judges. Dozens of ex-jihadis have been allowed to return to England, so presumably one more is not going to make that much of a difference or cause the prison system to collapse. Kicking up a fuss about this one in particular is an excellent offering for little-England chauvinists, given the notoriety of Begum and her two friends since the start of their fateful journey five years ago.

False attraction

That notoriety deserves further scrutiny. There was nothing terribly surprising about young men sneaking off to fight for the Caliphate - after all, we have had domestic Islamist terrorism in this country already, and those who read up on the perpetrators (or merely watch the Four lions movie) will know that training abroad is part of the life cycle for many of these men; the story that hundreds of them were making the trip to Syria, as they might once have done to Chechnya or Afghanistan, was a problem for the spooks but a little bit ‘dog bites man’.

Not so the three girls. These products of a thriving metropolis - born to not especially religious parents and educated in mainstream secular schools - had decided before their 16th birthdays to commit their lives to the exact opposite. They would place themselves in a very carefully designed separate female sphere, in a land ruined by grinding civil war, governed by a theocratic paramilitary organisation that triumphantly advertised its mercilessness.

The girls’ families hoped that they might have gone to retrieve a friend of theirs who had already gone, but nothing of the sort transpired. The girls were naive, perhaps, in their assessments of the chances of success - but not about the nature of the project they were joining. Beheadings were an attraction, not a worry. Here were people actually fighting back, unlike the ‘respectable’ imams of east London (or even the more ‘radical’ fundamentalist groupings such as Hizb ut-Tahrir). They were going to build a new Salafist theocracy in the ruins of Ba’athism, and knew very well that a woman’s life would differ markedly from that in the liberal west. (Securocratic leaks to the press claim that Begum herself gained a fearsome reputation as an AK-47-toting enforcer of IS’s purity codes.)

To be sure, in some respects, the story was easy to swallow. Begum did the chauvinist right a favour by having brown skin and a Bengali name, thus allowing the framing of the story in terms of the obedience (or otherwise) of British Muslims to ‘our’ values, along with the related moral panics about Islamist influence in municipal government in east London. Only up to a point, however: we have already noted that the three were part of mainstream society, not hidden away from it by families at war with ‘our values’. Perhaps those values are part of the problem - or, at least, the obvious hypocrisy of them.

The essence of the mainstream western critique - if that is the right word - of IS is that it openly gloried in gratuitous, spectacular bloodshed; but it is unavoidably true that the full, bloody tally of IS exploits amounts to just a tiny fraction of the death and misery unleashed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion (never mind the carnage of the Syrian civil war, in which the US and UK played a more discreet, but highly destructive, role). It is no surprise that the rightwing media howled with outrage when Begum drew comparisons between the US bombardment of Raqqa and terror attacks in the UK - after all, our bombs only kill terrorists, don’t they? ‘Western values’, it seems, include killing people in large numbers only from a suitably polite distance - not to mention spouting rhetoric about liberty and the rule of law, even as our military misadventures push ever greater expanses of the Muslim world into warlordism and anarchy.

The return of Begum is so fiercely resisted because it is the return of the repressed - the evidence of the non-evidence of western virtue. She is one index of the collapse of credibility of the governing-elite ideology of the last 40 years - neoliberal ‘internationalism’, whereby barriers to free trade were to be torn down, and liberal-constitutional regimes allowed to grow in tandem, producing cosmopolitan middle classes the world over. This idea is comprehensively discredited among the general population: one result is votes for people like Donald Trump, who dispense with the niceties of spreading democracy and openly avow their thirst for vengeance as a casus belli when it comes to that. (“We are not nation-building: we are killing terrorists,” Trump said, when justifying yet another futile troop surge in Afghanistan.)

Between the revanchist chauvinism of Trump, Boris Johnson and co, and the attraction for some Muslims of the most nihilistic forms of armed struggle for the ummah, we have two forms of recognition of this exhaustion. They are both locked into the cycle of failed liberalisation and conservative backlash. That is the tragedy of Begum’s case: despite the stridency and ultra-violent excess of IS’s praxis, it is in the end a false alternative to the hypocritical liberal internationalism of the late and post-cold war western bourgeoisie - an Islamist ‘internationalism’ that considers most Muslims to be apostates deserving of death, never mind everyone else.

Though the US and its allies must take primary responsibility for the rise of IS, through its military disasters and its sponsorship of reactionary clericalist regimes in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, the attraction it had to sections of thinking youth is in small part down to the failings of the left: for abandoning our own explicitly socialist internationalism for various opportunistic, get-rich-quick schemes over the years; and for failing to turn mass sentiment against the Iraq and subsequent wars into lasting parties of extreme opposition to the bourgeois state.

But we have short-term responsibilities in this case too: we demand that Shamima Begum is permitted to contest the revocation of her citizenship, which itself was an abomination; that the British state ceases to use this arbitrary mechanism to leave people stateless (as it has in the case of over 150 others); and that - if Begum is to face trial for any crimes - she does so in an open court before a jury. Otherwise, the next time you hear a Tory MP lecturing Putin or Xi about the rule of law, remember this repellent attempt to make her an unperson.


  1. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/17/shamima-begum-strip-citizenship-desert-prisons.↩︎