You don't have to like Shamima Begum to be worried by the government's handling of her case

The idea that populist, racist outrage might lead to the citizenship of an individual being revoked undermines the very universal values we claim to promote

February 22, 2019
Shamima Begum in a photo held up by her sister. Photo: PA
Shamima Begum in a photo held up by her sister. Photo: PA

In the last ten days, the country, and indeed the world's media, has been transfixed by the plight of Shamima Begum, the deluded teenager who left to join the terrorist death cult in Syria and has ended up a broken mother.

Like other similar stories, Begum's case has once again acted as a lightning rod for polarised opinion. Her actions, and whether she is sufficiently remorseful, have been as hotly debated as has her right to return back to the country where she was radicalized: the UK. The only thing that unites all commentators is the fact that her decision to go to Syria to join Daesh was wrong.

The recent decision to revoke Begum’s UK citizenship, however, appears to have been driven by an insidious populism that leaves minority communities of all hues wondering whether they can ever be regarded Britons with an equal stake in the country they were born in.

The law is not new and cannot be blamed on the current Home Secretary. It was the 2014 Immigration Act which embedded this discrimination and created a two-tier system where those—disproportionately ethnic minority communities—with certain foreign heritage have the risk of their passport removed in a way that is not relevant for white Brits with British heritage.

On the one hand, there is an increased security threat from terrorism, and some argue that necessitates greater powers for our government. But can it really be right that a girl born and bred in the UK, who happens to have Bangladeshi heritage, is treated differently to a girl who has white British parents and poses a similar security threat? Should ethnic background really be a factor?

And should such a devastating power that can ruin the life of an individual who is prima facie innocent, lie solely at the hands of the Secretary of State whose decision risks being arbitrary, inconsistent (why this power has not been used in Northern Ireland where every citizen has dual nationality and where 94 per cent of the UK's terrorist attacks occurred in 2017) and driven by the news cycle (why the white American who travelled to join Daesh was described as “groomed” by the Telegraph but this brown Bangladeshi Muslim is perceived differently in the same paper)?

Is it right that there is no open legal process or judicial involvement unless there is an appeal to a secret court or judicial review?

Let’s not pretend this is about security: a 19-year-old woman with no fighting experience, who is “willing to change” and with a new-born young son, poses far less a threat than hundreds of foreign fighters who have been allowed to return to our shores—and far less than our strong and proud nation is able to handle.

Whilst the legacy of the hostility towards immigrants left by the previous Home Secretary may play a role, it is interesting to see how many commentators believe Sajid Javid’s final decision was a populist one with the intention of strengthening his credentials in advance of a potential leadership election. What better way to show you are tough on terror, than aligning with the 65 per cent of the public who think Begum’s citizenship should be removed even if it would leave her stateless, breaking international law? A young girl who chose to join a terrorist death cult is rarely going to be at the top of our list for those deserving of our compassion.

But if true, we have what appears to be a Home Secretary making a decision that is steeped in racism—whether or not that was his intention—based not on our national interest but on populism and the widespread coverage (and fearmongering) surrounding the case.

And that scares me.

The broader public’s view on minorities generally is pretty awful. A third falsely believe the far-right conspiracy theory that there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter and a majority think Islam (not fundamentalist groups) pose a threat to Western liberal democracy. Even a third of young children think Muslims are taking over England.

And can we really trust the media not to feed a populist rage against a minority community despite there being a “consistent stream” of inaccurate stories about Muslims? A few weeks ago the Daily Mail was forced to issue an “epic” correction for a double-page spread full of lies about migrants. The Spectator published a piece opining in a sub-heading that “there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party.” And the Sun has whipped up hatred against Muslims on a number of occasions, including a front page story falsely claiming “one in 5 Muslims have sympathy with jihadis.”

On the story of Ms Begum, we’ve had much of the media resort to religious illiteracy and at times pure bigotry as commentators seek to persuade the Home Secretary to keep her out.

The idea that populist (racist) outrage might lead to the citizenship of an individual being revoked, potentially on a racist basis, is hugely dangerous and undermines the very universal values we claim to promote.

In 2019, is equality for all Brits really too much to expect?