By Rafia Zakaria
February 27, 2019
SHE was 15 years old when she fled. Shamima Begum was a schoolgirl at the Bethnal Green Academy when she fled England to join the militant Islamic State group. She wanted to work for their cause and saw the life of a militant’s wife in the service of the IS as superior to her ordinary life as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants to the United Kingdom. Recently, just as the last of the IS fighters were being rounded up, she surfaced again. Now 19, Shamima Begum said she wanted nothing more than to return to the United Kingdom. Soon her family too was making appeals to the public; even if her return could not be immediately achieved, they wanted to be able to bring her son to the UK where he could receive better care than at the refugee camp where Shamima Begum now lives.
Return, however, is more complicated than that. Despite the fact that Shamima Begum is a British citizen who should be repatriated to Britain, there were hesitations. Ironically, the man giving voice to them was of immigrant descent. In the days after Shamima Begum’s story emerged, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared that Britain would not take Shamima Begum back. The fact that she was of Bangladeshi descent, he argued, made her eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. In doing so, Mr Javid was making the argument that Shamima Begum would not be left stateless were she to be shorn of British citizenship. A woman who fled to join the IS and was married to a militant, the mother to his child, could not be let back into the country.
The issue of the women who were married to IS fighters is bigger than Shamima Begum. According to news reports there are more than 800 people in refugee camps who were somehow connected to the group and have citizenship of Western nations. International law requires these countries to claim these people and not leave them stateless by taking away their citizenship. Just like Javid, many of these countries are likely to point to other nations to which they may be connected as alternative venues of citizenship. The fact that they, like Shamima Begum, may have tenuous or fragile connections to these places of descent does not seem to matter in the process of disowning these women.
According to the UK, then, Shamima Begum is Bangladesh’s problem. While not implicated in this particular case, Pakistan too may soon find itself in a situation where it has to accept disowned citizens of this or that Western country who have been associated with the IS. Pakistani citizenship laws, like those of Bangladesh, do provide citizenship by descent and IS members who migrated to Syria were often from these communities. What indeed should Pakistan or Bangladesh do in a situation where they are being saddled with former terrorists or their wives and children because Western nations want to maintain that they are no longer eligible for citizenship?
There are people in the United Kingdom who are on the side of bringing Shamima Begum back. In the wake of the controversy some commentators argued that Shamima Begum was a child who had been groomed and indoctrinated in the UK. She was, in this sense, a home-grown terrorist who had been beguiled to migrate to Syria, all while in the UK. According to UK law she was 15, a minor, when she left. If she were being tried for a crime that had been committed in the UK, her age would have been a mitigating factor. Then there is the pedigree of Sajid Javid, the home secretary and opponent-in-chief of her return. Some alluded to the fact that he was coming down hard on Shamima Begum’s case because he wanted to burnish his anti-terror credentials with conservatives in the UK.
Shamima Begum’s case is far from resolved. In recent interviews, she pointed to the fact that going public with her plea to the British government was likely not in her best interests. After her case, another woman, Hoda Muthana, who was a United States citizen, has also expressed her desire to be repatriated to the US. Like the British, the Americans have refused to take her back, the US Secretary of State arguing that she has no valid US passport, visa or claim to a passport and hence will not be permitted back.
Lodged in the midst of the issue of citizenship is that of culpability. It is not quite clear what Shamima Begum was up to while she was with the IS. According to statements made by some Yazidi women, it is naïve to assume that all of these women were innocent bystanders and passive wives. Many were directly involved in pushing the agenda of the IS and mistreating others whom they saw as lesser militants. In the case of Hoda Muthana, the evidence is easily available, with various internet records showing that she was a top recruiter making vivid calls on social media to “kill Americans”.
Why should a country, any country, take back women such as these? International law provides some answers but they seem hollow and incomplete given the nature of the IS and the tactics that they deployed to attract young people to the ‘caliphate’ they established. There is little guarantee, after all, that these women, brides of IS fighters, would not get back to the task of gathering up recruits and militants and fighters once they were permitted back into these countries. In the days to come, it seems that no country is likely to be amenable to taking on the headache of repatriating and rehabilitating them. Once associated, it is a forever game, with the persons undeserving of welcome or trust or acceptance. Shamima Begum will likely have to wait a very long time before she or her son can end up in a place they can call home.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.