In 2015, Shamima Begum left her home in East London to join the Islamic State (IS) group – an extremist terror organisation. She was 15 years old.
She soon married an IS fighter (an Islam-convert from The Netherlands) and had two children, both of whom died of malnourishment and illness. This February, with the IS caliphate on the brink of defeat, she escaped to a refugee camp, 9 months pregnant, and gave birth to a son.
There are a dozen women in Shamina’s position. But it’s Shamima we’re all talking about. She went viral after she was interviewed by a journalist at the camp and said she wanted to return to the UK. This story even pushed Brexit off the top spot on the news for a while.
Everyone had a different view on what should become of Shamima and her child. And much like Brexit, it’s divided the country.
*A caliphate, by the way, is an islamic state ruled by one leader. The caliphate had covered areas of Syria and Iraq and wanted to enforce their view of Islam (while followers of Islam around the globe were utterly aghast at IS’s brutal, cruel misinterpretation). Basically, just imagine a christian who hadn’t read the Bible super clearly but felt very ”tis the year 10AD’ about life and decided we should take things back to stoning and lions. That.
But let’s rewind for a second
When deciding Shamima’s fate, we need to ask why. Why would anyone leave their home to go on an arduous journey through Europe and into a dangerous, war-torn land, with no idea what would be awaiting them?
I wonder if she ever imagined that the two friends she travelled with would end up dead? Would she have turned back? Or was she riding on a giddy wave of optimism? Did she truly believe she was going to a better place?
We still don’t have all the answers – but we’re slowly piecing it together.
‘I wanted to get married and my parents wouldn’t let me,’ she explained in an interview with the BBC. That’s one reason. It’s not awfully damning – it’s almost Shakespearean in it’s naivety.
But Shamima also admitted to watching the horrific videos IS were putting out (such as the beheading of hostages and an idealistic look at life under IS). That’s much darker, more disturbing. She said she liked what she saw. To my knowledge, no journalist has asked why that is. Is it psychopathy? The natural lure of gore and horror to many teens? Power? What?
Shamima was certainly groomed online. Brainwashed from the age of 13 or 14. IS have used social media with alarming effectiveness. And not just to recruit influenceable young people to join them. They spread fear. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled their homes to avoid being brutally murdered/starved/victimised/oppressed by this vile regime. (Hence the migrant crisis, but that’s an entirely different topic.)
We don’t know what else Shamima saw online. We don’t know what she was exposed to offline. We don’t know what she was told or promised. We don’t know if she was threatened or just lured.
But that’s exactly what we need to find out.
And we can debate how responsible Shamima is for her actions. If certain ideas are enforced to us from 13 or 14 years of age, can that cloud everything else? Can it override our sense of self, our ethics, our actions? She was a vulnerable teenager.
Although, as Pandora Sykes points out in The High Low, the idea of a young girl being powerless and swept along, with no real thoughts of her own, is actually a very anti-feminist narrative for us to tell. Janice Turner writes: ‘young women can be as devout, bloodthirsty and fanatical as young men – and it’s patronising to think otherwise.‘ We can’t assume that joining IS wasn’t a choice Shamima made for herself. Of her own volition. But we don’t know for sure that is was, either.
‘Get in the bin, Shamima. I was a bit of a pr*ck when I was 15 but I didn’t run off to join a theo-fascist death cult,’ someone tweeted.
It’s a point. Sort of. My head still reels with questions. What made Shamima think that IS was the right decision for her? How much can we judge someone for their actions at 15? And how responsible was Shamima for the decisions she made? It’s all up for debate. And there’s a lot of investigating left to be done.
‘I saw a head in a bin. I felt nothing’
Arguably, the most debated part of Shamima’s interview was the revelation that while she hadn’t seen anyone killed under IS, she had seen a severed head in a bin. ‘It didn’t faze me’ she added, deadpan.
A lot of people lost sympathy for her after that.
I saw it differently, though. You can’t control the way you react to something. You can’t decide to be shocked or sad. Not really. Shamima’s lack of emotion doesn’t tell me she’s evil and destructive. It tells me she’s really, really damaged. PTSD? Stockholm syndrome? They’re all possibilities. Until she’s evaluated by a mental health professional, it doesn’t seem fair to speculate.
And I can’t help but note that Shamima didn’t have to mention this story. She seems to be very honest – even when it’s to her own detriment. She gives frank opinions, which she surely knows will be unpopular (most concerning was trying to justify the institutionalised rape of Yadizi women).
Surely, it would have been easy to find a journalist and claim she had been tricked or forced into coming to Syria? Pushed into an unhappy marriage. Forced to bear children. ‘Please, I just want to return to my family,’ she could have said. She could have played the system. She’d probably have been home in a shot.
The fact that she didn’t do that? It makes me inclined to believe she really is battling between learning, for the first time, about the realities of IS and her deep-seated belief in the cause (albeit misguidedly).
Ignorance vs Innocence
One thing that really struck me about Shamima’s interviews was her reaction to some of IS’s crimes. It was like she was hearing about them for the first time. I suppose living in the caliphate was basically an IS-propaganda bubble.
When they asked her about the Manchester attack, she said: ‘I was shocked. I didn’t know about the kids, actually. I do feel that is wrong. Innocent people did get killed.’
Reading it for the first time, I was surprised (but pleased) by her humanity. It told me she wasn’t a lost cause. But it does beg the question: If Shamima thinks innocent people getting killed is wrong, what did she think IS were doing?
But she’s a woman of contradiction. She drew criticism by comparing the Manchester attack to the airstrikes on Syria: ‘It’s one thing to kill a soldier, it’s fine, it’s self-defence. But to kill people like women and children just like the women and children in Baghuz who are being killed right now unjustly by the bombings – it’s a two-way thing really because women and children are being killed back in the Islamic State right now and it’s kind of retaliation. Like, their justification was that it was retaliation so I thought “OK, that is a fair justification”.’
Innocent women and children have been killed in the fight against IS (I believe this may be called ‘collateral damage’ and I’m not saying it’s right). You can see how this could be spun, in IS fashion, to be ‘an eye for an eye’ but the fact that the Manchester attack happened first didn’t seem to matter to her.
Is Shamima a threat to the UK?
Shamima seems remorseless about going to Syria.
She says she doesn’t regret her decision. She explained that she’d never have met the husband she loves, or had her children. She added the experience had made her stronger and tougher. ‘I had a good time there,’ she said – presumably forgetting about the six months when her husband was imprisoned and tortured by IS because they thought he might be a spy. And when her home was destroyed in an airstrike.
This thought process may be the effect of 4 years under IS rule. Where you’re not to complain about your problems, you are to shoulder the weight and carry on. Where every set back is character-building and gives you strength. Be grateful, very grateful, for what you have. It’s a grim mentaility, but I imagine that’s the only way to survive warfare.
‘I don’t agree with everyone they’ve done, I support some British values.’ Shamima says in the video above, as she talks optimistically about deradicalisation courses and rehabilitation. ‘I don’t know what options I have. I’m not going to say I want this and this,’ she adds, awkwardly. ‘That wouldn’t be appropriate.’
She is clearly conflicted. Part of her is appalled by IS. But has the illusion been truly shattered? Does she believe in British values enough to be able to live in the UK? Would radicalisation programmes and therapy rehabilitate her entirely, to become a normal citizen again?
And is she a threat?
As far as we know, she’s never hurt anybody. And she says she wants to live a quiet life in Britain. But is this true? Is there a risk she’d turn others towards IS? Become part of IS plots in Britain?
It’s not a crime to travel to Syria and marry a fighter. So unless they can prove that Shamima was involve in a terror plot, she hasn’t – under the eyes of the law – done anything wrong. (As far as I know.)
If they find evidence she has been involved in any terror activity – or perhaps convinced others to join IS – then that’s one thing. But if not, what’s the risk of Shamima? Her extremist views are a problem, certainly. But we let Tommy Robinson live here, don’t we? He’s as much a citizen as she is.
And perhaps with the help Shamima desperately needs, she may be able to live a normal life in the UK. She has to face up to what she’s done, of course. While she (probably) hasn’t committed a crime, she did join an utterly evil organisation. But if we don’t believe in the redemption, what’s the point in anything? What would be the purpose of prison? The alternative is living in a fascist state where wrong-doing results in death. Quite like the caliphate, really.
And what should we do now?
I understand why so many people support Shamima being refused entry to the UK. I understand the worry that she could fan the flames of extremist propaganda and persuade others to join IS. I understand the discomfort that she could potentially be using our brilliant welfare system which should go towards helping the sick and needy – not ‘extremist housewives’. (Although I think deradicalising people to live good, productive, useful lives is quite a good use of my taxes.)
Here’s what I don’t understand, though: Shamima has received more backlash than Jihadi John, an awful human being who bragged about his terrible, vicious crimes. Whereas Shamima hasn’t even committed a crime (that we know of).
While she did something bad, it’s surely not on the same scale as, say, Myra Hindley’s crimes? Or Fred West? And they weren’t stripped of citizenship and made someone else’s problem.
As George Osborne wrote in The Evening Standard (and I’m quite horrified to be quoting him, I’ve never agreed with him on anything until today):
‘Ms Begum is our homegrown problem. She was groomed by extremists when she was 15 in our country. Investigate her by all means, charge her if she has committed crimes, and imprison her if that’s what the court decides. But that has to happen here.’
And those who condemn Shamima on social media do so with no sense of irony. Most tweets berating her for her lack of humanity end with ‘and she should rot’. It reminds me of the title of my favourite poem, Pity This Monster, Manunkind. (E.E. Cummings, if you want to read it.)
This is not just about Shamima’s lack of remorse and empathy. It’s our own, too. We must approach difficult situations with the compassion that the world is in far too short supply of. And enough sense to move past our own emotional, knee-jerk reactions. If we don’t, I fear we’re just fuelling the monster.
No-one really knows enough about Shamima’s story to decide what should become of her. Is she simply an extremist housewife, brainwashed by IS, innocent of all crimes? Or is there something more sinister lurking there? Something we’ll never be able to control? Can we redeem Shamima? Should we? I think we should at least try. Try to make someone a better person. We can’t just cast off ‘undesirables’.
As Danny Dyer said (another person I never expected to quote): ‘I feel she needs a chance, maybe to explain what was going on. Maybe we can understand a little bit more about how they got to her and how she felt it was the right move to jump on a plane and leave this country at 15 years of age. She is still a young girl… Maybe we can learn from it.’
Why must we immediately make this story so black and white? Let’s acknowledge things can be difficult and complicated and messy – and that it can take a while to find the solution. We’re in a hurry for quick, easy answers. And that’s exactly how dangerous ideas and actions breed.