Women Jihadists and their Children, Born in Territory Formerly Held by ISIS, Force Western Societies into Self-Examination
By Martin Accad
Shamima Begum, now 19, was one of three teenagers from east London who were caught on camera as they left Gatwick airport in 2015, on their way to Syria to join ISIS, which was then at the height of its power. Now trapped in the Syrian refugee camp of al-Hawl near the Iraqi border, having lost 2 children during the recent demise of ISIS and with a new-born baby boy, but still defiant and unrepentant for her actions, Begum is pleading for the right to return to the UK to raise her son in the safety of a home.
The UK and other western governments find themselves in a tough legal and ethical dilemma concerning the fate of their nationals who joined ISIS over the past 5 years. UK law (section 40(2) of the British Nationality Act 1981) apparently gives the home secretary the right to strip a citizen of their UK citizenship so long as this does not render them stateless. In the case of Begum, home secretary Sajid Javid has taken such action, based on the belief that the young woman would be able to claim citizenship in Bangladesh, where her family originally hailed from—though she was herself born in the UK.
The dilemma is further compounded by the fact that Bangladesh’s ministry of foreign affairs has swiftly rejected the UK argument, stating that Begum was not a citizen of their country and had never claimed Bangladeshi citizenship. Begum herself claims to have never set foot in her ancestral land.
The case of Shamima Begum symbolizes an ethical and legal nightmare that we must all reflect on. It is easy to jump to harsh conclusions based on news headlines. Why should an “unrepentant” young woman who has continuously expressed hatred for her country and its citizens draw pity or mercy from those who are the object of her hate? Why should Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey feel pity for her children when she contributed in the death of thousands of their own children as a result of her decision to join ISIS?
Besides the illegality according to international law of an action that would render a person stateless—as argued above—there are further ethical issues that emerge. Begum was born neither in Bangladesh nor in Syria or Iraq, but in the UK. Her radicalization occurred not in south Asia or in the Middle East but in east London. Is the UK government’s decision to make her another country’s responsibility, after her radicalization has manifested itself, anything but a copout? If Begum’s actions and words “do not reflect the values that the UK stands for,” as the argument against her goes, then neither does the country’s evasion of its responsibilities towards teenagers whose radicalization occurred on its own territory.
The media have vividly cited Begum as “unrepentant” and therefore undeserving of compassion. But how will western countries who have allowed radicalization to take root within their borders address their own sins of neglect and apathy towards their youth?
Some have argued that her case brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” in Luke 15, as argued by N.T. Wright in a recent article published in Christianity Today, and that the church—if not the state—should therefore show her compassion and offer her the possibility of restoration.
The prodigal son, however, approached the possibility of restoration in quite a different spirit. “I will set out,” he said to himself, “and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’. (Luke 15:18-19)” The prodigal was clearly repentant, whereas Begum has explicitly said that she is not.
One might argue, of course, that the father in the story was prepared to receive his son back even unrepentant, as it is clear that he ran to him with open arms before he was even aware of the latter’s intentions. But we might ask ourselves as well whether the father would have carried out his restorative act if the son had arrived and arrogantly said: “Here I am! Take me back, for I have rights in your household, being your son!” Based on other parables and teachings of Jesus, such an unrepentant attitude would probably have been met with judgement and punishment.
The cases of western radicalized youth who joined the ISIS utopia are indeed a nightmare. The struggle that we all experience to feel compassion towards Begum and her child, as towards hundreds of others like her, is understandable. Actions have consequences, and radicalized teenagers who have been further hardened on battlegrounds represent a real danger to the security of our societies immediately and for years to come. Whether they are received back into the countries where they were born or not, these youths are likely to represent a security challenge for years to come. But if no one takes responsibility to deradicalize them and help them reintegrate into society, they are likely to become the spearhead of ISIS’s next and worse incarnation. Justice ought to be restorative rather than vengeful. States have the primary responsibility to protect their citizens. They need to be thoughtful in how they reintegrate such “prodigals,” and criminal law needs to be applied where crime has been perpetrated.
But churches have a role to play in parallel to their states. If the state should face such cases as Begum’s with a firm determination to apply the law and protect all citizens, if Begum and others like her need to pay for any crimes they might have committed, it will be the church’s role to initiate restorative action. The church might need to play the role of the father in the “prodigal son” story and receive such rebels with open arms with every intention to offer them the possibility of restoration and reintegration into the social family. Neither states may capitulate on their role to apply justice, nor churches may capitulate on their role to apply restorative grace and mercy. Perhaps then Begum and her sisters, brothers, and children, will have the opportunity to be embraced into the fellowship of the children of God restored in Christ.