Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Why UK, as a democracy, faces an acid test in Shamima Begum

What distinguishes a civilized nation from a murderous cult is how it treats those it has an obligation to protect even if the individual has acted in a way that most people in the nation consider abhorrent. A democratic government adheres to the rule of law and prosecutes an individual only if there is good reason to believe that the individual has broken any law.

Britain is caught in this dilemma as one of its citizens—19-year-old Shamima Begum—has been found in a refugee camp in Syria and she has said she wanted to return to Britain. She was in the final month of her pregnancy (over the weekend she gave birth to a son). She had lost two children born earlier. Had that been all there was to her story, Britain would have welcomed her back even if grudgingly, but there is more.

Shamima left the UK when she was 15 with two other girls, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana. They made their way to Syria, lured by propaganda videos of the so-called Islamic State (IS), to live in the proposed caliphate, where they would marry Muslim men they had not yet met. Many such men were drawn to the IS from around the world, many among them became warriors who would very likely have committed war crimes. Their atrocities have been documented as heinous—taking women as sex slaves, beheading people and unleashing a reign of terror so vicious that it has few parallels. Shamima named her newborn son Jarrah, the same name she had given to her first-born who died within months of his birth, a name that can be traced back to an early Islamic warrior.

Nothing is known about what happened to Amira; Kadiza is believed to have died in a bomb raid. Shamima has shown no sympathy for the war’s victims, including seeing a severed head in a garbage bin, nor expressed any visible remorse over the violence, and certainly not shown any signs of introspection over the choices she made. “All I want to do is to come home to Britain," she has said.

The British government has decided she cannot return. In a decision sent to her family on Tuesday, the home office said it would take steps to revoke Shamima’s citizenship, though she has the right to appeal. The decision would please many in Britain. Shamima is not a girl now, she is a woman, but she isn’t white and she is Muslim. She doesn’t belong here, according to those who don’t wish to see her back. As her parents are of Bangladeshi origin, the government says she is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship, which means she won’t be rendered stateless. Taken to its logical end, it makes the citizenship of anyone who acquires British citizenship, or is the child of a naturalised citizen, inferior to “authentic" British citizens, whoever that might be. Brexit has enabled many ugly worms to crawl out. Nobody is painting KBW (Keep Britain White) on walls yet, but racist incidents have increased in recent years and visible minorities feel vulnerable.

The anger against Shamima is palpable mainly because she has shown no contrition and is candid that she wants state help to ensure a healthy life for her child. Four years in Syria have toughened her, but she concedes: “You know, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left." British authorities will have to make the case for revoking Shamima’s citizenship skilfully, because making someone stateless is a human rights violation. The state will have to establish that her presence in Britain is a grave threat to security. Britain has the obligation to protect its citizens at home and abroad. As Stephanie Hancock of Human Rights Watch put it: “Headlines about ‘jihadi brides’ returning home inevitably provoke strong emotions. But the UK’s responsibility for its citizens does not end at the cliffs of Dover."

Kamila Shamsie’s remarkably prescient novel Home Fire deals with just such a question, where a British home secretary of Pakistani lineage (like Sajid Javid at present) has to decide whether to allow the dead body of a Britain-born man of Pakistani origin, who had joined the rebels, to be returned home for burial. In the novel, based on Sophocles’s play Antigone, the body is taken to Pakistan, where the slain man’s British-born sister challenges the home secretary.

Shamima made appalling choices, but she was a child. There are sound reasons why children are not treated as adults. Children cannot marry, sexual relations with them is considered statutory rape, they do not have a vote, nor can they stand for elections. Children sometimes commit horrendous crimes—think of the cruel murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys in Bootle in North England in 1993. But nobody has credibly alleged that Shamima has killed or harmed anybody, or been complicit in crime. She has experienced severe trauma—losing two children—and she is abhorred for her views. Democracies prosecute illegal actions, not views.

What sets a democracy apart from a vengeful cult like the IS is that it can distinguish between a perpetrator and a victim, and offer the hope of redemption. By revoking her citizenship, Britain diminishes itself, undermining its own traditions of upholding the rule of law. It is punishing a young woman’s beliefs and views, however repugnant they may be to many, and not for what she may have done.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns

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