When the story of Shamima Begum first broke, I am sorry to say that, my first thoughts were much like the majority of people; having seen the depravity of the action of the Islamic State, I was angry and horrified that she might return back to Britain. My first thoughts were, “you made your bed, now lie in it“. However, as I have thought further I realise I was in error and now am in the very unusual position of agreeing both with Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg (And it can not be often that those two find themselves on the same side of an argument!). Further, I know I am going to lose a lot of peoples’ sympathy in saying this, however, it is clearly right that she is brought home and investigated and tried here.
I think Javid Sajid, the home secretary, has made a mistake in attempting to revoke her U.K. citizenship. I imagine he felt the same revulsion as I did and saw this as a quick measure to appease the mounting hostility he could sense rising from the British public. In his situation this may have looked like a godsent opportunity – he could appear strong, he could appeal across both sides of the political divide, and he could demonstrate that he, as a Muslim, was eager to protect British values and society. There would be few people trying to take the side of a “bride of ISIS”. This must have seemed the obvious thing to do. Indeed, I myself, thought similarly.
Then my doubts started. This was not particularly about her age though this did give me some concern. She was an adolescent when she left to join and was married to an IS fighter and pregnant before she was of legal age. There is some argument that she was, at that time, too young to be held responsible for her actions. Some would argue that, in some ways, she herself was abused when she arrived there. I do not know what responsibility should be apportioned to her but, in fact, this is not really the point. At the moment we do not know what she did. We do not know if she undertook unspeakable butchery and crimes, or whether she spent her years childbearing and childrearing. What she did is important. It is not reasonable to say all those on the losing side of a war are equally culpable. Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for unimaginable atrocities and barbarism. Would we say that after World War II every German had to be equally punished for their country’s actions ? No. After the Khymer Rouge’s reign of horror and terror do we hold all Cambodians equally responsible? No. We would not say “just shoot him he’s a German / Cambodian” ; we would want to find out who participated in what, who initiated this or that, who ordered what, and who did what ? Only knowing this do we know who to punish.
To make an example of someone, no matter how tempting this is, is a major breach of our Western values. We hold that everyone is equal in front of the law and that you are only punished for that which you are responsible. If we make this girl the scapegoat for IS we break this tradition and become closer to the barbarians we have been fighting. We fought them because they punished people simply for being members of a particular group. They killed or punished people just for being a Christian, or a homosexual, not for any criminal acts. There would be no sense that we had won a war if the price of winning was that we started to behave like those we fought.
We need to know what she did. Paradoxically the more she is culpable for the more we need to bring her back here. If she did nothing then her youth may have been a mitigating factor and her treacherous actions may be limited. If this is the case then her punishment also should be limited. However, if she was complicit then she requires to be punished and this will not happen in a Syrian refugee camp. If she did little or nothing and we leave her there what will be her future? Will her third child die of malnutrition, will she ? Should we worry ? If we worry about the radicalization of our youth then we should. If we bent the rules to make an example of her then, were she to come to harm, she will act as a symbol to any who question our society. They could argue that, for all our highfalutin statements, we are unjust and biased against people of the Islamic faith. We would be writing the script to create a martyr and to create new fanatics for the future.
If she is guilty of heinous acts then we should wish her back. If you doubt this try this thought experiment. Say a young woman had exploded and bomb in a shopping centre in Cardiff killing a number women and children. Now we find she has fled Britain and is hiding in Syria using the cover of a refugee camp. What would you want to happen ? Should we just say “good riddance, we are well shot of her” ? Or should we be striving to get her back here to face justice ? I think that when we consider this the prime motivator is to ensure justice is done. So if there is any hint that she has committed crimes we need to get her back to ensure justice for her victims. We seek the extradition of criminals all the time. It would be easier not to, it would be easier just to let them escape justice, and we could sit happy that another ‘bad lot’ was someone else’s problem now. But we don’t because we value justice. It is one of the things that makes us who we are and our culture what it is.
At this point we don’t know if she was a stupid adolescent duped into being an accomplice to horrible events or whether she is an active agent of evil responsible for some of the barbarism which, we know, took place. It is important we find out and we are not going to be able to do this by shirking our responsibility. If we say we are too afraid to bring her back, lest she creates terror here, then we are saying that we have lost the battle. We are saying that our comfort and safety is more important to us than our moral beliefs and our system of justice. Sometimes difficult and unpleasant decisions have to be made, and we will only win this battle to protect our enlightenment ideas if we actually show how important they are to us. We must hold to our beliefs in fairness and justice no matter how unpleasant the foe, no matter the temptation to gain the satisfaction of revenge, and no matter what the terror they threaten us with. If we stoop to their level we will have lost.