The Home Office of the United Kingdom just revoked the citizenship of “ISIS bride” Shamima Begum, who left the UK for Syria in 2015 and subsequently married an ISIS terrorist. As it is illegal under international law to render anyone stateless, the UK can revoke a person’s British citizenship only if they hold dual citizenship. As Begum’s mother is of Bangladeshi heritage, she is believed to be eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship — though this is disputed by Bangladesh’s foreign ministry — which would make it legal to revoke her British one. While this decision is wildly popular — supported by 78 percent of Brits polled — it has troubling implications. Most dual citizens in the UK are naturalized immigrants or people of color. By setting an example where the government strips someone of their British citizenship without due process, the Home Office leaves the citizenship status, and hence the very Britishness, of immigrants and people of color at risk.
The Home Office and its supporters have argued that Begum poses a security threat if allowed back. While there is no evidence that she was personally involved in ISIS’ atrocities as her activities in Syria appear to have been limited to bearing children in rapid succession, Begum said in a recent interview that she did not regret joining ISIS and showed no sympathy for its decapitated victims. But while Begum’s statements make it hard to muster sympathy for her, sympathy is not a prerequisite for citizenship, a fact recognized by several commentators in the UK.
There are many issues here. Is Begum complicit? Is she a security risk if allowed back in? Has she lost her right to come back? Further, does the UK have the moral right to make her another country’s responsibility? Even if the first and second possibilities are true, it does not imply the veracity of the third and fourth. Whether Begum is complicit or not, and if yes, and how much, are knotty questions. While she is a member of a terrorist organization and has justified its actions, she was not involved in either ordering or carrying out its crimes. While she joined ISIS as a 15 year old, a legal child under both the voting age and the age of consent in the UK, who was very likely groomed, she has not shown any remorse or regret as a 19-year-old adult.
I don’t know the answer, but even if she is complicit, it does not necessarily make her a security threat or beyond the scope of rehabilitation if she returns to the UK. As Begum’s role in ISIS has been passive, it is unlikely that Begum will start to actively inflict violence if she returns. Begum has also said she is “not going to go back and provoke people to go to ISIS or anything” and is “willing to change” to keep her citizenship. Whether you believe her or not, she has demonstrated willingness to be rehabilitated.
Even if Begum were a security threat and attempted to recruit for ISIS, that is a matter for a British court to investigate. White domestic terrorists like Thomas Mair, who murdered Member of Parliament Jo Cox in 2016 for her support for the UK to remain in the European Union and David Copeland, a member of the far-right British National Party who placed bombs targeting black, Asian and gay people in London in 1999, were both granted due process before being sentenced to life imprisonment. Begum, who unlike them has not committed violence in person, is then just as entitled to a fair trial. If convicted, she is the UK’s responsibility, just as Mair and Copeland have been.
Moreover, the Home Office has not uniformly applied links to war crimes as a criterion for revoking citizenship. As Symeon Brown, a reporter for Channel 4 News, pointed out, the British citizenship of Asma al Assad, wife of the Syrian dictator and war criminal Bashar al Assad, has remained intact so far. Jack Letts, also known as “Jihadi Jack,” a man who left the UK to allegedly join ISIS in 2014, has also kept his citizenship. Like Begum, Letts holds dual citizenship — his second being Canadian — but the UK has not shown any urgency to offload him onto Canada. But in a staggering display of colonial arrogance, the Home Office is attempting to use Bangladesh as the dumping ground for the UK’s problems. While neither Mair nor Copeland were dual citizens, hence making it impossible for the Home Office to revoke their citizenship, it is not clear if the Home Office would have done it even if it could have. What is clear is that with Mair and Copeland, loud accusations of them being traitors and not truly British were far less frequent among the British public and media.
Fears that stripping Begum of her citizenship creates a precedent that leaves the citizenship status of British people of color vulnerable are well-founded. The Home Office has a history of perpetuating racism. This month, it deported dozens of Caribbean nationals, many of whom have spent much of their lives in the UK, to Jamaica. The reasons given for deportation included convictions of “dangerous driving and drug offences.” The hypocrisy and gall of the UK in insisting that Jamaica be responsible for “foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality,” as the Home Office put it, while it washes its hands of British nationals who have joined death cults abroad, is blinding.
Supporters of the Home Office insist that prosecuting Begum in British courts or attempting to rehabilitate her wastes taxpayers money that is better spent on cash-strapped services like the National Health Service. Strangely enough, this concern did not occur to the Home Office last year, when in what is known as the “Windrush Scandal,” it detained and deported elderly Caribbean people who had immigrated to the UK in the 50s and 60s, but did not have documents of their residency status. Those who were not deported were often evicted, fired and denied welfare due to the Home Office’s desire for “a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
As with Brexit, the Home Office showed that despite Donald Trump’s efforts, the US still faces stiff competition from the UK in the race to lead the world in xenophobia and racism. By revoking Shamima Begum’s citizenship, the UK has set a precedent that does little to allay concerns that it treats British people of color as de facto second-class citizens.