What to do with Shamima Begum?
The question dominates the front pages of today’s newspapers. Begum, I should explain, is a British-born Muslim who as a teenager, accompanied by two friends, went off to fight with ISIL in Syria and who is now pregnant and wishes to return to Britain. She is not coming back because she is filled with remorse for her actions – which apparently she is not – but because she wishes to raise her child in safety – and as Conservative commentators have been quick to point out to avail herself of the free care offered by the National Health Service.
The case provides one of those moral quandaries of the kind that incites newspaper readers to write cross letters and indignant radio listeners to call in to vent their intemperate spleens. “This is not her home,” writes one columnist. “She is a traitor who allied herself with unspeakable evil.”
My initial instinct, as a paid-up member of the liberal elite, is to wonder what Donald Trump would do and then do the opposite. At the same time, I have a certain amount of sympathy with my brethren on the Right and, by all accounts, the ‘sensible’ views of the wider British public. She and the Jihadists she so reveres are contemptible. So are millions of resident citizens.
All I propose then is that we revert to the law.
First, she is a British subject, born and raised in Britain, and so ostensibly is entitled to come and go as she pleases. But has she, by going to Syria – leaving aside what she did while she was there – committed a crime? An emphatic yes would be the response of right-wing columnists: by ‘joining’ ISIL she consorted with an enemy of the state. But is that in itself a crime when ISIL is not a belligerent in a war, or at least not one that has formally been declared by the British government.
Second, that little technicality notwithstanding (as lawyers would say), does she pose a threat to national security? Arguably, she does. She may have been brainwashed into going to Syria as a naïve fifteen-year-old, but she has failed to renounce her views and indeed has boasted about not being shocked by some of the things she saw while there. “When I saw my first severed head (how many were there after that, I wonder), it didn’t faze me at all.”
Full marks for honesty, then, even if it is of the kind that used to be deployed by unrepentant Nazis a few decades earlier. Her views may be despicable, but her actions cannot simply be declared illegal, and so punishable, without the presentation of evidence in a courtroom in a jury trial. Even Nazi war criminals were tried in a court of law.
If, as a British citizen, she cannot be barred from re-entering Britain – and we cannot mandate that she should be sent somewhere else – then what should be done with her? I confess to being unable to answer without again reverting to the law, or at least due process.
If, in the view of the security forces, she poses a threat to good order and human rights, then she can be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for evaluation, as any other suspected terrorists would be, and as many have been. What ‘evaluation’ means in that context I would not like to hazard a guess, but such is what the law prescribes.
That may be – make that is – a most unsatisfactory solution, as my Right-minded friends will insist. It may also be nothing more than a wishy-washy genuflection to liberal values.
But what other recourse do we have except to the principles of law and democratic protocol?