OPINION - Shamima Begum was brainwashed, she doesn’t owe us regret or remorse

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Where would Shamima Begum be now if she had thought to cry in an interview in 2019?

We still can’t stop revisiting the Begum story: The BBC’s I’m Not a Monster follows ITV’s Shamima Begum: The Blame Game and the Times’ Bring Me Home podcast. Yet no matter how much attention Begum attracts, no matter how much we learn or ‘try to understand her’, the damage she did to herself in her interview with Anthony Lloyd, the journalist who found her in Syria, seems to have stuck.

Begum is not now in a deradicalisation programme back in the UK, like many others who joined terrorist groups. Instead she has been stripped of her citizenship. Britain can legally strip dual-national terrorists of their citizenship, among them jihadi brides — Begum is not a complete outlier. Yet in her case the decision was made for undeniably political reasons. Begum has now lost her legal challenge over the decision to deprive her of her British citizenship, but it is the politics of her case that should give us pause for thought.

Begum has, essentially, an image problem. In her first interview she failed to express remorse. In I’m Not a Monster, Lloyd explains, “What she says is not what people might have thought: ‘My God, I made a terrible decision, get me out of here.’ It is: ‘Get me out of here, but I have no regrets.’ And then she espoused essentially Islamic State ideology, in a really unattractive way.”

Even worse, in a Sky News interview she had the wrong expression on her face — teenage ingratitude, entitlement, irritation — and said exactly the wrong thing. “I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through,” she told the reporter. And later says, in a bored manner, “I just want forgiveness, really, from the UK.”

Anger immediately boiled over — Begum became one of the most hated people in the UK. Sympathy? Forgiveness? The newspapers reacted with revulsion. No, Begum did not deserve sympathy or forgiveness. For her presumptive requests alone, she should get our harshest possible punishment.

The media reaction was the backdrop to then Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s rapid decision — Begum would not be brought home, as she wished. Instead her citizenship would be revoked. That was a decision that teetered on the edge of violating international law — Bangladesh had declared there was “no question” of her being allowd to enter the country — it might have made her stateless. A subsequent legal decision was made that Begum was a “citizen of Bangladesh by descent” — an uncomfortable use of a power in the 1981 Immigration Act.

This was the price for Begum “coming across in the wrong way” on television. She was left in a refugee camp with a newborn, who died of a lung infection. She’s still asking to come home now. But it is still just too politically difficult.

Yes, Begum joined ISIS — she does not deserve to be granted exception from the laws that deal with such people. But there is much in Begum’s story to suggest that she does not deserve one of the UK’s very harshest treatments. She was recruited at the age of 15 — and agreed to marry her jihadi husband, we now know, within 10 minutes of meeting him. Other than running away to Syria, there is no evidence that she committed any crime: she was a housewife, she says, and took care of her children. Two of them died before the conditions in the refugee camp took the life of the third.

Yes, Begum is not likeable. But likeability, I’d suggest, is not the best basis for international law.

There is something in our attitude to Begum that smacks of immaturity. It is essentially emotional. We cannot seem to grasp that someone brainwashed as a teenager by ISIS might actually act like a teenager brainwashed by ISIS.

And that someone who spent her latter teenage years as a housewife to a jihadi, amid terrible violence, might seem a bit hardened to it all, and not quite grasp all the finer points of media presentation.

Those who want Begum left in a detention camp in Syria say we shouldn’t make an exception for her. But we already are. Her fate has become political — that is to say, emotional. Essentially, Begum must court us, or charm us, if she wants any hope of international law treating her case dispassionately.

Will the recent attempts to understand and explain Begum to the public achieve this purpose? That remains to be seen.