Targetting Shamina Begum is wrong, simply wrong

Media treatment of the Shamina Begum story has on many occasions over the past two weeks sunken to the level of shocking .  The report this morning on the Victoria Derbyshire programme that images of the young woman currently in a refugee camp in Syria are on targets at a shooting range in Wallasey on Merseyside is absolutely shocking.  “  This young woman is now the subject of demonization that must stop. **

The actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the past few years have been nothing short of evil. Those who have gone out to fight for them must be held to account.  However nothing in those words excuses a host of the comments made about Shemina Begum, and by extension others who have been involved in any way

What she has said is upsetting and wrong, but frankly that is the nature of media stories – they shock.  However on my last look at the subject the UK was a democracy where the rule of law holds, and where people are brought to trial within the boundaries of that law. Up until now the reports of Ms Begum’s circumstances have been by journalists, and while she has conducted interviews there are major questions about the circumstances. The most obvious is that she is a camp surrounded by other former supporters of  ISIS, some will still be supporters. 

This evidence alone would most likely not hold up in a court of law,  and it should not be allowed in the decision making of the Home Secretary.  He has however gone ahead on the media story alone (I’ve heard no suggestion there was direct contact by British government officials) and revoked her citizenship. 

It is good the Bishops of the Church of England have condemned the way her story is being treated and called for her to be allowed to re-enter the UK.  Our own Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that enabling Ms Begum to come to back to the UK would “give us an opportunity to show that we as a country deal with difficulties using due process. It would give us an opportunity to assess whether she is actually a risk and send out a powerful signal to other young people about the sort of values we stand for. Now we are going to lose that.”    

My friend and colleague Rehana Faisal has argued powerfully that Shamina’s case should be viewed through the eyes of our work on preventing and challenging the sexual grooming of children and young people. Shamima Begum: Children, Grooming and Consent.

I know many who read this will feel anger at my positioning of Shamima’s story alongside those of sexual abuse and exploitation in other contexts, but is her situation really so different? ‘ISIS Bride’ is an ugly term to use to describe a 15-year-old child, but our use of it serves as a quiet and undignified acknowledgement of what happened to her. In a recent interview, Shamima talks about her desire to have a family several times, and how travelling to Syria had fulfilled her aspirations in this respect. Shamima did not travel to Syria to fight, this child travelled with the expectation of ‘marrying’. She was not groomed for war, she was groomed for sex.

Children who have been groomed rarely recognise their own grooming, often identity with those abusing them and take years to unpick how they were manipulated, or their vulnerability was exploited. They can also be drawn into the criminal activity of those responsible for their grooming.

Rehana goes on to address the issue of “why she just can’t leave”, aligning this situation with what is called “Stockholm syndrome” or trauma bonding.  

In the light of Rehana’s argument, which I agree with totally, the article last week in Premier Christianity by Tim Dieppe, The biblical case for charging Shamima Begum with treason, is and both theologically thin and practically worrying. The public policy director of Christian Concern seems to project the understanding of treason in a theocratic state onto the operation of a democracy.

Anna Rowlands, a Durham theologian, in a powerful piece in the Church Times :  Shamima Begum and the possibility of restoration insists the case calls us to look at ourselves.

“… this story now centres as much on who we are and the obligations that we bear as it does on who Ms Begum and her child are.   What obligations do we bear for our own citizens, including when they err in the most serious way? What are our obligations to law — in this case, when asked from a faith perspective, both natural and international law? Who do we ourselves become if we render Ms Begum and her baby stateless? What responsibilities do we bear to other states? Surely we ourselves ought not to mirror as a nation the narcissism of the individual who will not accept that our actions have moral consequences.

…. we perhaps owe to Ms Begum right now: an interval of care, and the promise of both a kind of justice and a form of love to come, whose shape we will have to figure out.”

That government policy is now more aligned with trial by media and the mob and not justice is bad. That it is apparently acceptable to reject the compassionate response Rowlands argues for here, and instead make the young woman a subject for target practice is simply wrong.

We are surely better than this?


**  As an aside, the BBC report also notes that the range is a airsoft range, using plastic pellets, and that images of Justin Bieber, Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. The range further excused it saying the range was “for people to learn the importance and safety of handling weapons, while having fun.  …. Our targets provide some fantastic reactions and conversations... bringing out the inner child in all.”  

As a farmer’s son I grew up close to guns.  However the absolute bottom line of gun etiquette I was taught was that I never pointed a gun at a person, whether it was real or a toy.  I have gained a respect of guns and also people – when it came to guns “the inner child in me” was shocked out of me by my father.  I am not a fan of the US President, nor of Justin Bieber and certainly not Hitler, but It is as wrong to have an image of a living person as a target – whoever they are.   

Peter Adams