Our national conversation on Shamima Begum, which ebbs and flows according to the imperatives of Begum’s legal team and a simultaneously cynical and naïve mass media, is saturated in bullshit. For her detractors, the 23-year-old East-London runaway is a danger to national security and must never be allowed back into the UK. For her supporters, she is a victim of grooming by terrorist recruiters and must be returned to Britain.
The last time Begum hit the headlines it was because she’d had a makeover. This was exactly a year ago: gone was the bulky black burqa, and in were the skinny jeans, Nike baseball cap, sunglasses and pink nail-varnish. Had a new beauty salon opened up in Al-Roj, the arid and austere holding-pen in north-east Syria where Begum is housed, alongside other former female Isis members and their children? It seemed unlikely, but Begum had somehow got her hands on a new bit of clobber and wanted the whole world to know about it.
Subliminally, the message seemed to be: I’m not one of them – them being the burka’d ghouls she’s detained with and who routinely throw dirt and blood-curdling insults at visiting Western journalists. No, she was saying: I’m one of you, a normal British girl who you wouldn’t look twice at in the street. The sort of girl her former comrades-in-arms want to blow up in nightclubs.
Begum has again returned to the block caps of front-page news. This time it is because the Sunday Times journalist Richard Kerbaj has a book to flog: The Secret History of the Five Eyes. The book, which is about Western spycraft and was published this week, claims that Begum was smuggled into Syria aged 15 by a Syrian man who was leaking information to the Canadian security services about Western Isis recruits. Begum, with her legal team, has also been working with the BBC on a 10-part podcast series that is due to air any day now: you’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the coming weeks and months.
In his book, Kerbaj recounts how Mohammed al-Rashed, a people-smuggler who worked for Isis, helped Begum and her two schoolmates, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, cross from Turkey into Isis-controlled territory in Syria shortly after they flew from London to Istanbul on 17 February, 2015. According to Kerbaj, al-Rashed had photographed the girls’ passports and sent the images to his handler with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) at the Jordanian embassy. But by the time the handler had received news of the girls’ travel, it was too late — they were in Syria. Al-Rashed is thought to have helped many more Britons migrate to Syria to join Isis.
This revelation about Begum is not actually all that revelatory: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran a story on it in March 2015. But it didn’t attract much interest at the time. Kerbaj, the BBC and Begum’s legal team and her apologists want to change that, refocusing the story on how Begum was trafficked and how the West had a hand in it.
According to the Begum family’s lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, one of the main arguments he expects to marshal in an forthcoming legal hearing to challenge the removal of Begum’s citizenship rests on her putative status as “a victim of trafficking”. It was “shocking”, he said a few days ago, that a Canadian intelligence asset was involved in the smuggling operation that facilitated her travel to Syria. Joshua Baker, the producer of the new BBC podcast on Begum, seems to agree with this rhetorical framing: “Shamima Begum was taken to Syria by a highly organised smuggling network and at the centre of it was Canadian Spy,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
The podcast, I’m Not A Monster: The Shamima Begum Story, is yet to be released, but it doesn’t bode well that its producer is flagrantly misleading the public about Begum’s passage to Syria in an effort to promote it. Begum was not “taken” to Syria, if by “taken” it’s meant that she was kidnapped or coerced into going to Syria by others against her will. On the contrary, she went under her own steam with Sultana and Abase, both now thought to be dead.
Of course, and in a very trivial sense, Begum and her schoolmates were “taken” to Syria by the pilot who flew the commercial jet that transferred them from Gatwick to Istanbul, where they were then “taken” to southern Turkey by a bus driver. And from there they were “taken” across the border into Syria in a car driven by a smuggler. But this isn’t what Baker means by “taken”: he means it in the Liam Neeson sense of a staged disappearance organised by shadowy criminals.
In reality, Begum was not the victim of human traffickers, but a willing client and beneficiary of their criminal services. Her decision to go to Syria was stupid and short-sighted, but it was still her decision. And let’s not pretend that she was a vulnerable and clueless little girl, as she is now incentivised to retrospectively claim that she was. Far from it: she was a smart, brave, bolshie and precocious teenager. It took a lot of guts and cunning for her to go to Syria, and no one made her believe that the caliphate was a glorious idea. She enthusiastically believed in it, because she needed or wanted to, and because when she traded Raqqa for London, ISIS was a revolutionary political movement in the ascendant. She volunteered to join it and then paid for the services of a smuggler by stealing jewellery from her family, as did the other two girls she went with. This cannot, in good faith, be categorised as “trafficked”; to try to do so is an insult to the real victims of human trafficking, who are sexually enslaved against their will.
And here’s the thing about the younger Begum that unthinking journalists like Baker can’t or won’t comprehend: she wanted to submit to the sexual enslavement of a god-fearing jihadi husband because the logic of her ideological-belief system commanded it. Far from being trafficked to Syria against her will, Begum wanted to go there because she felt it was a divine duty to join Isis and help build the nascent caliphate. To see Begum as groomed is to catastrophically fail to see the attractions of violent political movements, especially to the young who are impassioned and recklessness enough to join them.
None of this, however, is to say that Begum should be abandoned and that Britain should expect the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria to indefinitely house her. That would be callous and irresponsible. Begum’s detractors say that she is a security threat. But the evidence for this isn’t very strong: yes, she was once a supporter of ISIS and had joined the group to help advance the caliphate project as a baby-making machine. But there’s no credible evidence to show that she fought for the group or that she learned how to use weapons or make bombs. Begum’s fighting ability is thus in serious doubt.
In the absence of any credible evidence that she’s a threat, Begum’s detractors revert to the argument that she’s a monstrous traitor who doesn’t deserve a second chance. She’s dead to us, and nothing she does or says matters. There can be no repentance; she should rot in Syria. This, I think, is not only profoundly illiberal but pathologically harsh, and wholly disproportionate as punishment for her actions. It exhibits the sort of catastrophic hurt and wounded pride that one would expect of an Islamist who wishes death on all apostates.
The strongest way of defending Begum isn’t to say that she was trafficked, but to acknowledge she did a bad thing and that it’s time to forgive her for it. She has endured over three years of suffering and sorrow in conditions that would test the resilience of the most hardened jihadi jailbird. This ought to be enough punishment to cleanse her of the imperious arrogance and idiocy that animated her to join Isis.
Imagine her despair, her uncertainty over her fate, her risk of capture and abuse by militants, and her knowledge that she is loathed by so many. Britain must now forgive her and allow her back. In return, Begum should take responsibility for her actions and not cloak herself in denial and evasion.
Will Begum ever fully reckon with her actions and acknowledge the full scale of the horror that Isis unleashed in Syria and Iraq? Will she reflect in an open and honest way on why she was once so passionate about joining the group? Will she properly recognise the crucial role that she and all the other Isis women played in helping the group expand? This seems unlikely, because no one is really interested in hearing Begum’s unfiltered thoughts about all this.
For her defenders, she is a wretched victim of circumstance and abuse by sinister outsiders, so she must speak only to this and to the broader question of how evil, Islamophobic Britain radicalised and then abandoned her. For her detractors, she is simply an untrustworthy villain who deserves zero sympathy, so she shouldn’t speak at all. She is a symbol of everything wrong with weak, Islamist-friendly, woke Britain.
I, for one, relish the day when Begum will speak for herself, neither spoken over by her critics, nor shackled to a script prepared by her cynical yet naïve supporters.