We Brits have entered the New Year faced by a barrage of unsolved problems from the past. Among them is the case of ISIS bride Shamima Begum, who left Britain at the age of 15 to join ISIS in Syria. The question of whether she is a victim or a villain has lost little of its controversy.
In 2019, Begum was stripped of her UK citizenship for joining a terrorist group. Since then, she has been attempting to return to Britain, making her case through various media outlets that have furnished a platform from which she has been able to present herself as a victim. This includes the BBC, who broadcast the first episode of their podcast “I’m Not a Monster”: The Shamima Begum Story on 11 January 2023. The series promises “to figure out what really happened.” This may, however, prove to be yet another effort by Begum to convince the world that she has been innocent throughout.
Despite her sex, Begum’s case should have been treated like those of male ISIS fighters and sympathisers, who have been seen as criminals for committing heinous crimes under the auspices of the Islamic death cult. But she has somehow managed to invert this narrative, positioning herself as a victim who deserves forgiveness for her misdemeanours, despite evidence that suggests that she aided and abetted the organisation’s criminal activities, perpetrated in the name of divine justice.
Together with two friends, Begum made careful arrangements for her travel to Syria. According to some witnesses, she showed no fear or shock upon her arrival in Islamic State territory; according to her ex-husband, Dutch convert and jihadi Yago Riedijk, the two were happily married and locals have reported that she was a prominent enforcer with the ISIS morality police until its final day.
Efforts to depict her as a victim of grooming, child trafficking and sexual exploitation seem like an insult to the real victims of those terrible crimes. And it is even more implausible that she has been a victim of anti-Muslim bigotry and institutionalised prejudice. The Institute of Race Relations’ report that British Muslims view themselves as second-class citizens because Shamima Begum has been stripped of her citizenship seems to be unfounded and disingenuous scaremongering that may spread fear and distrust among British Muslims.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which extended the UK government’s powers to strip people of their British citizenship, is subject to debate. But whether or not we support the act, the assumption that British Muslims have anything to fear from Begum’s being held accountable for her alleged crimes is dangerously misleading and runs the risk of depicting all British Muslims as potential terrorists. Begum does not represent British Muslims. She represents people who have allegedly been involved in criminal activities in Syria and should be held accountable accordingly.
The parallel case of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, arrested by the FBI in 2008 for her involvement with al-Qaeda and convicted of seven charges, including murder, by a US court in 2010, offers a useful lesson on the dangers of portraying a radical ideologue as simply a victim. Siddiqui’s case has several mysterious aspects, and many questions remain. But it seems unlikely that she was an ordinary woman with an innocent desire to study and raise a family in Afghanistan.
As with Begum’s, Siddiqui’s ex-husband (Dr Amad Khan) claims that she was a firm supporter of the Taliban and “pumped up about jihad.” He reports that he divorced her for her extremist views. But the 2008 photograph of Siddiqui, which has accompanied many more recent news reports about her case, shows a woman with sweat-matted hair and severely chapped lips, head inclined and eyes closed: a victim of western brutality. Such depictions can influence vulnerable people into seeing someone like Siddiqui as an innocent and wronged defender of oppressed Muslims.
Hers has become a sacred cause to radicals in the Muslim world. On 16 January 2022, British citizen Malik Faisal Akram held four people hostage in a Texas synagogue, promising to free them only if Siddiqui was released from custody. Usman Khan, who killed two people in a 2017 terror attack in the UK, also expressed admiration for Siddiqui. As Channel 4’s foreign correspondent Secunder Kermani reported: “[A] neighbour … said Khan was particularly passionate about the case of Aafia Siddiqui, alleged to be a dangerous female Pakistani terrorist, but also a victim of human rights abuses … He says Khan once broke down in tears showing him a picture of Aafia.”
To turn Shamima Begum’s case into a sob story of the victimisation of a Muslim woman and as indicative of wider discrimination against British Muslims may likewise provide extremists with a means of radicalising vulnerable people, who may even be inspired to join a death cult.
Those who sincerely regret their actions and wish to reform should always be given the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, if there is clear evidence that they are no longer a danger to society. But we should not be apologetic about protecting people from the toxic influence of religious extremism. ISIS returnees—men and women alike—should not be mollycoddled by the media. They have committed or colluded in heinous crimes against humanity and should be subject to the full legal consequences for their actions. Begum’s case should not be romanticised, nor her actions excused. She should receive a fair trial and be held accountable for any crimes of which she is convicted.