Sounds like the weirdest instalment of the Harry Potter series, doesn’t it? Like most of the country I have been following the story of Shamima Begum over the last few weeks, with my take on the issue changing several times over the duration. I’m not here to try and change anyone’s views, but several aspects about the decisions made about her and the public’s reaction to her story have left me deeply unsettled.
As most of us are aware already, Shamima travelled in secret to Syria from London in 2015 when she was 15 years old after she was radicalised online and is now trying to return home. She left with two other students, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana after communicating with Aqsa Mahmood, a woman originally from Glasgow who was now living in Syria after also travelling without the knowledge of her family in 2013 when she was 19 years old. Kadiza Sultana is now dead after she was reportedly killed in an air strike aged 17. Kadiza was known to have been trying to escape IS before her death and Amira’s whereabouts are currently unknown.
They are not the first teenage girls to have been recruited to IS, and almost all appear to have met a similar fate. In 2014, two Austrian teenagers, Sabina Selimovic and Samra Kesinovic also traveled to Syria in very similar circumstances. They appeared in Islamic State propaganda websites wearing burkas and carrying machine guns. The girls were reported to have married jihadist fighters and not much more was known about them until a report from a Tunisian woman who had managed to escape IS disclosed she had been kept in sexual slavery with the girls in a house in Syria, to be abused by newly recruited soldiers. Samra later tried to escape but she was caught by IS forces and beaten to death with a hammer aged 17. By this point Sabina was also dead after she was killed during fighting in Raqqa. She was 15 years old. There has also been Sally Jones, who was older when she joined IS and like Aqsa Mahmood was also involved in the recruitment of other young women, as well as encouraging converts in Britain to carry out ‘lone wolf’ attacks on home soil.
On paper it makes no sense why these girls would have left their homes and travelled in secret to a literal war zone in an unfamiliar country to marry unknown fighters in an organisation known for their murderous brutality and horrific treatment of women.
One of the most common arguments I hear is “well I knew right from wrong when I was 15”. That maybe true, but you definitely didn’t always care. Can you say that you never once defied a parent or authority, did something you knew that you shouldn’t and did so in secret? Of course you did. Teenagers are naturally secretive risk takers. It’s a normal part of our development as we’d never leave our families or caretakers side otherwise. I don’t know what you did. Maybe it was underage drinking or sex, maybe you took a bunch of drugs or got yourself an absolutely mortifying tattoo or a bad boyfriend. Who knows, maybe you did all of those things. Now you could argue that none of those things are in the same category as joining a militant terrorist organisation and of course you would be right. But take yourself back to that age for a moment, and throw in some highly sophisticated groomers in there who know just how to manipulate your desire for excitement and belonging, to be a confidante for all your worries and tell you how are amazing you are and far too special for a mediocre life in a materialistic society that hates you. If you think that wouldn’t have worked on you at such a young and vulnerable age, then you are lucky enough to have never encountered such people in your life. They won’t use a head carrying soldier covered in blood to do it. They’ll find someone who looks like you. In Shamima and her friend’s case, that was Aqsa Mahmood. They would have been told how great it was there, how respected by their men they were, free of islamophobia and safe to walk the streets in Islamic dress. They will have been told it wasn’t a bit like the corrupt press made out. “Trust me, I did it. I was scared just like you, but look at me now. My life is beautiful and has meaning and yours can too if you’re brave”.
The next point in Shamima’s trial by media was the disgust at her lack of remorse about the death she has seen, stating that she “wasn’t fazed” by the sight of seeing heads in baskets. Her lack of emotion has the nation outraged, unable to understand how she could be so callous. Out of curiosity, how many heads in baskets have you seen, because I’m twice Shamima’s age and I have seen precisely none. But I have seen trauma, and felt it too, and I know a little bit about how it works.
On a daily basis I have people disclose to me the very worst things that they have seen and experienced. The kind of stories you thought only existed in the very worst of nightmares. Very rarely are these tales told to me with tears and histrionics. The vast majority of the time they are relayed with a blank expression and a deadpan voice. Laughing while they tell you isn’t all that unusual and I don’t care how long you have been in the job, there will never be anything as unnerving as watching a young woman giggling in front of you as she recalls dozens of episodes of physical and sexual abuse. Does she find it funny? Of course not. It’s a nervous reaction, a defence strategy, because when you are repeatedly subjected to trauma your fight and flight responses become rewired. You will react in a way your brain tells you will ensure your survival. Again, how many heads in baskets have you seen? I’ve seen precisely none. I don’t know how I would react if I did, and you can be sure that you don’t either.
If Begum didn’t give you the x-factor style tears and heart wrenching monologue about every single horror she has seen or been subjected to-all the gory bits included- before you will even consider mercy for her or her baby, then I have some bad news for you about how you will view others who don’t fit your criteria of a ‘good victim’. Maybe you scan homeless people for track marks and bottles of buckfast before you consider sparing a few coins because you’re not giving money to a fucking junkie. You demand their story. You want to see war medals and an honourable discharge certificate to make sure they are the right kind of deserving waif to receive your generosity. Maybe it’s the victim of domestic violence that you will condemn for refusing to leave the man who beats her senseless every day, resulting in her terrified children being taken into care because she “chose a man over her bairns”. If I’m wrong, I apologise for my assumption because I’m glad you could show those people compassion and understanding. It’s those out of our comfort zone that need it the most.
Because her interview in the refugee camp in Syria where she is currently is too much to digest, let’s consider her before she ever traveled there. At the point Shamima had communicated knowingly with a notorious IS member, she was already condemned. If she had engaged in conversation that could even slightly be interpreted as dangerous, and her groomers would have ensured that she had, admitting it could have led to the arrest not just of her, but potentially her family and friends too and undoubtedly being put on a watch list. Who exactly could she have gone to for help in those early stages if she had even the slightest doubt about what she was getting herself into. By that point IS had done what all abusers of children do. They had shackled her to them with a secret she could never tell anyone, because she’d already done wrong, she was one of them.
With Shamima, there is no suggestion that she has actually committed any of the atrocities she has witnessed herself, though you’d never know that from reading any comments section of articles about her. So far I’ve seen calls for her to be executed, the Tower Of London appearing to be the preferred venue for this to take place. They asked she was tortured slowly, this while she was still heavily pregnant. Her baby who has since been born, elicits slightly more sympathy, though not as much as you might think looking at the dozens of comments stating that “it” will always be a threat to our country even at a few days old and should never be allowed to step foot in the UK. I’m always baffled by those who call for a slow and sadistic death on people they hate because they inflict slow, sadistic deaths on others, but this unflinching hypocrisy is always present in online conversations where IS comes up. The same people who scream that we shouldn’t allow muslims into the country on a piece about immigration because they want to bring in Sharia law are the same people who will happily call for the hands of thieves to be cut off in the next article down about an old lady being mugged with no sense of awareness whatsoever.
But actions do have consequences. I wouldn’t suggest that Begum should be exempt from this and I haven’t seen anyone else put this forward either. But it’s complex, as we have seen in the grooming gang cases like the one in Rotherham, where girls already in the clutches of the gang will be used to befriend and lure other young girls to the organised parties, some being present while those victims are then subsequently abused and doing nothing to try and stop it. Some do face criminal charges when they play such a part, but it’s not quite as simple to label them innocent victim or ruthless monster is it? If Shamima Begum has not committed any other crime other than membership of a banned organisation, what punishment should befit her given that there is a clear case of grooming?
It’s not that I believe all women who get radicalised like this are all naïve, innocent flowers who cannot be held accountable. Some will know exactly what they were getting themselves in to and what they are trying to get new female children into. I have particular contempt for Sally Jones who I mentioned earlier. She was quite a bit older when she decided to travel to the area, but she also took her small 8 year old son Jojo with her, and it is this that I just cannot get my head around. taking a little boy to such a known, dangerous area when he could have stayed safe with the rest of his family. Since then, pictures of who is believed to be Jojo show him in combat gear with weapons and adult hostages and he was believed to have already been fighting alongside IS militants until his and his mother’s reported deaths by air strike in 2017. Reports that have since been disputed, with some claiming that Jojo or Sally or both could still be alive.
We desperately need to know more about the tactics and resources of IS recruiters and Shamima Begum is a rare chance to gain some of that understanding given that most IS brides who travel from western countries to join them in Syria tend to end up missing or dead pretty quickly. I don’t claim that there are any easy answers. What I am sure of is that everything about this case is less about national security and more of a test about what restrictions we will cheer being put on liberty. It’s easy to do this with Begum. It’s extremely hard to have sympathy for her, with her at best coming off as an entitled clueless brat, and at worst as something dangerous.
How is it that the Home Office can revoke a citizenship in minutes without a full investigation but it can refuse to grant it to windrush citizens who have been living, working and contributing to the country for half a century? Brexit is upon us and we already know that there has been government talk of ‘reviewing’ or repealing the human rights act once we have left the EU, which would no longer be able to enforce it. The implications of that are dark. Despite what right leaning politicians or tabloids the human rights act was not born to protect criminals, rapists and terrorists. It was there to protect ordinary citizens from being abused by those who seek to exert authority over us. Before you applaud its potential repeal, make sure you would be happy for your rights to be stripped away. Because it could be you next much more easily than you think. Anti terror laws that we welcomed after 9/11 have already been used against non violent nanas for sitting in the road in anti-fracking demonstrations and hunt saboteurs, who are actually upholding the law against using animals to rip apart other animals for laughs and social status.
Shamima left the UK at fifteen and is now nineteen. She has just had her third child since leaving, her other children are dead, and she has been pregnant for most of her time in Syria, which gives you some idea of what her life has been like there. Hate her for her perceived indifference to the victims murdered by Islamic State both here and abroad if you must. But if you truly despise IS for their fanatical views and utter disregard for human life and liberty think carefully before you celebrate the government showing you just how easily they can strip you of legislative protections if they see fit and making you a little less free and a little less safe than you were in the interests of their national security.
As I was writing this, this song came on my playlist. I haven’t heard it for years but the lyrics seemed to take on a different meaning in respect of the subject content:
http://youtu.be/Tx6g0hVxCWU – Part Of The Process by Morcheeba