In 2015, Shamima Begum was one of three teenage girls from Bethnal Green, London, who flew to Turkey and then travelled across the border into Syria with the intention of joining ISIS. The girls had done their research, raised funds, and made travel arrangements all (apparently) without the knowledge of their parents, who heard nothing more from their daughters after they entered Syria.
It seemed unlikely that they would ever return, even if they wanted to. But then last week The Times published a remarkable story: One of their journalists had found Begum in a refugee camp in Syria, who had fled the collapsing Caliphate and lost contact with her husband, a Dutch Jihadi. Begum was nine months pregnant (she’s now had the child) and, having already lost two children to disease and malnutrition, wants to return to the UK, if only for the sake of her new baby.
She has expressed no remorse about her decision to join the terrorist group. In the audio recording of her interview, Begum sounds eerily calm, at one point saying that she was unfazed when she saw a severed head in a bin. This could be a sign of trauma, or of callousness—we simply don’t know. We also don’t know what crimes she may have committed during her time in Syria, though it seems likely that she could be prosecuted for a number of offences if she ever returns to the U.K.
The U.K. government now has to decide what to do with her. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has been talking tough, threatening to strip Begum of her British citizenship and prevent her returning. He has been criticized by many on the Left, among them the MP Harriet Harman who tweeted that Begum deserved compassion, having been “groomed online” and “lured abroad to be used for sex.” Regardless of Begum’s culpability when she left for Syria aged 15, it’s likely she now poses a security threat.
If she did return to the U.K., she would also be a target for the far-right and would have to be protected by the British police for the rest of her life. There is an irony in all this, of course. Having gone to great lengths to wage Jihad against the West, she is now throwing herself on the mercy of the very state she despises. Are these the actions of a young woman too deluded to recognize what she has done, or of a cynic who now realizes that her hopes of living under a victorious Caliphate have come to nothing? Again, we don’t know.
I disagree with the Home Secretary. I think that Begum should be allowed to return to the U.K., although she’ll have to do so on her own—U.K. officials should not be put at risk in efforts to retrieve her. If she does manage to get back, my hope is that the machinery of the state will then grind into action. She should be prosecuted for any crimes that she has committed and punished accordingly. Her parenting capacity should be assessed by social services, who might well put her child into care. She should be protected from violence, and the public should also be protected from her. She is a U.K. citizen and this is how we do things here—or should. “Without fear or favour, affection or ill will” in the words of the Judicial Oath that all our judges have to swear. This is a principle worth defending, even (or perhaps especially) when vengeance might be more satisfying.
She might be brainwashed, as her family insist, or she might be a committed fanatic, which is the impression she gave in her unapologetic statement to The Times. She might be somewhere in between. Only Begum knows what horrors she has suffered, witnessed, and perpetrated. She has experienced the deaths of two children, and was very likely mistreated under a brutal regime that regards women as property. Then again, we know that she did her research, and ISIS makes no effort to conceal the outrages it commits against those it regards as infidels—in fact, it uses the footage as propaganda.
Begum left for Syria after perhaps the worst atrocity committed by ISIS, the Sinjar massacre, in which thousands of Yazidi people were murdered in a matter of days, with many more forced into sexual slavery. Surely she must have known? “Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else,” to use Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase. The trouble is, some people are rather further towards the accomplice end of the spectrum.
There has been a furious debate in the British media over exactly how culpable Begum and her fellow “ISIS brides” really are. The word “grooming” has been used frequently to describe the process by which the girls were indoctrinated into Jihadist ideology online. Some on the Left have argued that the girls’ youth made them helplessly vulnerable to ISIS recruiters and they have been compared with the victims of the many child sex abuse rings that have operated in the U.K. in recent decades. It is true that the Bethnal Green girls were subjected to a very deliberate campaign of online manipulation. Like the girls groomed by sexual abuse gangs, they were lied to, flattered, offered gifts, and made to feel part of a community. Of course youth is a factor in this—naïve teenagers are all too easily misled by charismatic adults.
But there are some fundamental differences between what is done to sexually abused girls and what Begum experienced. The two processes may begin similarly, but in grooming gangs emotional manipulation very quickly progresses to rape, torture, and threats of murder. Whatever may have happened to Begum after she arrived in ISIS territories, there is no suggestion that she experienced any kind of physical coercion before she got on that plane. What’s more—and this is crucial—the victims of grooming gangs do not seek out violence in any way. They’re fooled into thinking that the men abusing them are their loving boyfriends so that even when they commit unspeakable acts against them, the girls are so psychologically broken that they remain loyal. These children go looking for love, but find themselves in hell.
That’s not true of Begum, or of any of the other young Westerners who have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. They went looking for war. It is pure nonsense to suggest that the Bethnal Green girls didn’t know that ISIS were a violent terrorist organization. They might not have known quite how obscene that violence could be, and they might not have appreciated that once in Syria it would be almost impossible for them to return home. But they knew enough. They have to bear some responsibility for what they participated in, but we also have to remember that they were children when they made the worst decision of their lives. These aren’t simple moral questions—we need to see this issue in shades of grey.
And yet, at each end of the political spectrum, the question of culpability is treated as if it were simple. On both the Left and Right, identity politics warps the debate, particularly on the question of terrorism. In fact, there is a neat symmetry to it. When a white man commits an act of terrorism, the Right wing media are quick to attribute his actions to either mental illness or legitimate grievances. When a non-white man is the perpetrator, the Left wing media do the same. There’s a Family Guy meme that often gets shared in Lefty social media circles in the wake of any atrocity committed by someone white. It shows a police officer holding up a colour chart in which the darker skin tones are labelled “terrorist” and the lighter ones “Mentally ill.” The tragedy is that so many on the Left adopt exactly the same approach, only with the labels reversed. Both political tribes draw a crude link between guilt and skin color, regardless of the circumstances of the case.
The Left are particularly prone to insisting that a terrorist was “radicalized” by another person, who must have been radicalized by someone else, who was radicalized in their turn, and so on down the line. Is there ever an ur-Jihadi, who radicalized themselves, or is it passive vulnerability all the way down? Much of the reporting on Begum has represented her as an innocent, totally unaware of the gravity of what she has done. The assumption seems to be that because she’s a young woman with dark skin, she couldn’t possibly have set out to do harm. Well, women can and do commit terrible acts. So do people of color. All human beings are moral agents, capable of both good and evil. As so often in Leftist discourse, there is the whiff of the soft bigotry of low expectations. To my mind, holding Begum to a lower moral standard because of her sex and race is the epitome of both sexism and racism.
The Right share the same tendency towards excusing wrongdoers when it’s politically convenient to do so. In their case, it’s often the bright young students and wholesome family men who get let off lightly when they commit terrible crimes. Such men are described in headlines as “brilliant, athletic,” a “devoted Mormon,” a “straight-A student,” or “soft-spoken, polite, a gentleman.” There is a noticeable disparity based on the race of the perpetrator. This, too, is a form of identity politics, although it isn’t always described as such. The criminals in these cases are given the gloss of respectability, not because of anything they’ve done, but because of their immutable characteristics. It is a sordid practice, whichever side indulges in it.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Shamima Begum and her baby. I hope that she’s put on trial, whether here or in the Middle East. I also hope that her child survives and is given the opportunity to live a life not blighted by the sins of his mother. Maybe there is a chance that she might be rehabilitated, as a few other “ISIS brides” have been, although listening to her interview it’s hard to sustain much hope of this. If she is tried in the U.K., the court will recognize that when she left for Syria she was above the age of criminal responsibility, but also that her youth was a mitigating factor and that she was subject to manipulation by ISIS recruiters. That’s as it should be. The law recognizes shades of grey, even when political commentators refuse to. I hope that her race or sex will have no part to play in whether or not she is found guilty because, in a liberal democracy like ours, she should be judged for what she has done, not for who she is. Without fear or favor, affection or ill will.
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