Victim or Terrorist? Thoughts on Shamima Begum

The situation with Shamima Begum has been one that I have been ruminating over for the last few days, whether it has been the racist headline of the Metro on Friday (“Jihadi Bride wants baby on NHS”) or the utterly appalling misogyny and unconscious racism displayed on this topic by politicians, friends and others on social media.

For those of you who may not remember, at 15, Shamima Begum left the U.K. with two friends to go to ISIS-controlled territories in the Middle East. There, shortly after arrival, she was married to someone she had been introduced to online who was 12 years her age. She will have been immersed into a society where women do not have the same rights as men, where their lives are extremely restricted and which rapidly became a war zone. A situation, as often reported in the media, where violence is ever-present. Where young boys are instructed in school on the best way to behead someone.

A lot has emerged about the background to her life before she left, her home, which was restrictive. Where she had been known to the anti-radicalisation scheme in her school and (perhaps unwisely) discharged from it as not being at risk. The security services at the time certainly admitted they knew she and her friends were in contact with individuals who had already left the U.K. on the same path. There was much reported at the time that this might have been a case where more intelligence on the human trafficking going on was wanted, but others in the field say this is more a far-fetched media rumour. Certainly, she was travelling on her older sister’s passport and not stopped. It looks like there was a massive failure in communication between relevant agencies in the U.K.

I have been struck by the words written about how she shows and almost-psychopathic lack of emotion when telling the story of seeing a human head in a bucket. This, I find, is an interesting take on something by non-experts without experience in the field. Shamima Begum is in an extreme situation. She has been in an extreme situation for four years. I don’t think anyone who had not experienced such a situation should make casual judgment; I recall the words of my grandmother when describing the death of her friends when escaping the Japanese, both in written words and in person – there was an extreme lack of emotion. I display the same lack of emotion when talking about very traumatic events in my childhood. If anything, she needs proper assessment from qualified professionals to judge what that is going on.

I also look at this from the perspective of the cases of both Child Soldiers and even Patty Hearst – all of who ended up fighting for their captors and exhibited extreme behaviours – in those cases PTSD, indoctrination, Stockholm syndrome, gas-lighting and grooming are all mentioned. So why not in this case?

What I don’t think is that any criminal offences she may have been committed should be over-looked – and there are a few, such as membership of a terrorist organisation for one – and that this should be properly investigated. The level of risk has to be assessed, to her, to her family, her child and wider community. It is up to the professionals and courts to assess whether or not serious restrictions on her liberty and life need to be applied, not the kangaroo court of public opinion. Any custodial or other sentence should be applied, where deemed appropriate and necessary by properly qualified professionals, taking into account all the extenuating circumstances and context.

I also recall myself at 15 and indeed at 19, Shamima Begum‘s age now. I recall my membership of questionable groups, odd beliefs and I definitely recall being a vulnerable teenager looking for something, anything as a reaction to what was an extremely traumatic upbringing and also ongoing awful situation. I became an evangelical Christian for a period. I realise now that I was absolutely ripe for the picking and I also recall being cut off completely from one friend for daring to express that I didn’t think that was me, after all. I might have been responsible enough to travel abroad on my own, to care for younger siblings, but believe me, I was not emotionally mature then and sometimes I don’t think I am now. I really don’t know how I would have reacted in Shamima Begum’s situation, in the environment she found herself in.

There are plenty who say she could have escaped, could have got out. Unfortunately I don’t think that is the case. Sex slaves who escaped from ISIS tell a different story, reports of what happened to those who tried speak otherwise: This is not the same as walking out of the house and going to the local police station and there are no consulates or embassies really who could – or even would – have assisted her. Think about British girls trying to get to the nearest British consul or embassy when they’ve been taken to Pakistan and are being forced into arranged marriages – their stories are horrific (as are the policies of repatriation).

In all of this, I have asked the question, somewhat bluntly, if people would have the same reaction to this story if Shamima Begum was white? I think the answer is that they would not. Everyone is agreed that the stories of teenagers abducted from their homes, or who leave under similar circumstances and find themselves child brides in dangerous cults is awful. Those victims seem to elicit immediate sympathy and in almost all cases, it’s because they are white. Think of the case of the Austrian teen abducted, or the Californian teen, ditto. Unconscious bias is showing here. Most of the comments made show absolutely no cultural competence either.

I believe there is a lot more to this story, but above all, I believe the media will report and edit what they want to show. I believe that Shamima Begum, as a British citizen, deserves all the aid and resources allowed to her under law for her repatriation. Aside from anything else, there is an unborn child to consider, who has done nothing wrong.

There is so much we can learn from her story, what happened to her, how she was recruited. This could prevent this from happening again. Other countries have undergone mass indoctrination and hysteria, yet I think we would regard most civilians and soldiers as victims, while also insisting they need to face the consequences of their actions. Above all, it is important to investigate the whole context of how this could happen and why she now thinks they way she does. This is not making a martyr of her, this is not excusing what she has done, this is showing compassion.

Shamima Begum should come home.

* Cass Macdonald is a Liberal Democrat from Edinburgh, formerly on Federal Council. They are a former nurse, now Long Covid advocate. They are Co-founder of the Keyworker Petition Campaign and part of the Scottish Healthcare Workers’ Coalition – a core participant at the Scottish Covid Inquiry.

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  • She joined a full on murderous movement not something illiberal with questionable beliefs, but a group that carried out the mass executions of unarmed prisoners, beheadings, religious persecution, rape, abduction, killed gay men, and encouraged suicide bombings. She deserves about as much sympathy as a member of the KKK or Hitler Youth.

  • Yes she should be able to return to the uk as she is a uk citizen
    But she should be held to account and face the full force of the law which includes the maximum prison term available.

    Her Baby should be taken into care with no visitation rights for her or her family. Her family can not be trusted to raise this infant, after all, they were unable to stop her from being radicalised in the first place, which has to speak volumes about her upbringing.

    I note from her latest interview, she says she is still an Isis sympathisor, She is 19 years old now and has to be held to account for her actions and her views.
    First and foremost the Public has a right to be protected

  • Yeovil Yokel 18th Feb '19 - 2:16pm

    As others have commented, she’s a British citizen and therefore has a right to return, so the Home Secretary and tabloids should keep their noses out and let the security services and courts ascertain the facts and deal with her accordingly.

  • If Begum was white the reaction to her returning to the UK will have been the same. To suggest otherwise is plain nonsense. Nobody wants terrorists coming back to the UK where they can attack British citizens on their own soil.

  • marcstevens 18th Feb '19 - 3:12pm

    She seems quite happy in Syria giving media interviews and the ideology she subscribes to iwould destroy democracy and get rid of equal rights so I would agree with Glenn all the way on this one.

  • Andrew Toye 18th Feb '19 - 3:21pm

    How someone changes from the ordinary and everyday, to being embroiled in a cult such as ISIS, is something psychologist and others should learn from.

    Anyone could meet a recruiter or groomer, either in everyday life or on-line, and start to have their mind warped. It happens gradually and imperceptibly. At no point does the person being groomed realise that they are being manipulated; it’s much more subtle and there is no definite tipping point. The process is similar to the way psychologically controlling domestic abusers groom their victims.

    There is hope that the process can be reversed, but to be successful it needs the subtlety, time and patience that the terrorists used during the grooming process.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Feb '19 - 3:58pm

    A measured tone must not mask the view I and most should or would hold, no doubt.

    That a young age makes for some degree of explanation or allowance is true.

    Other than this, to even hint, lest we not be clear, that someone who has left her country, to join in with one of the most evil groupings we have seen, is the justified recipient help from our government, is beyond words.

    Treason and crime, if that is what is the guilt here, demand justice. She must be tried. She may be not guilty, of such outrages, indeed , a victim of grooming, and given a lesser sentence, thus.

    But she is not friend or fellow of any right thinking person if in keeping with her previous tendency or viewpoints.

  • nvelope2003 18th Feb '19 - 4:49pm

    Anyone who believes and continues to believe it is ok to behead someone if their religion approves of it is a very dangerous person. Her latest statements show no contrition which I suppose is at least honest. She wants to come back to Britain for the benefits to be obtained from the NHS and Social Services and is not embarassed to say so. The prodigal daughter ? I think the prodigal son was a bit sorry.

  • She is a British citizen/subject and the Kurdish officials are absolutely right to ask us to take her back. This does not mean we have to think she is a victim or is deserving of sympathy. Plus, it’s sort of unfair to lumber her on other people. If she is a potential threat she our potential threat , not theirs. After all, even convicted criminals are allowed to return.

  • We have no other option, under international law, than to allow her entry.

    However, all this talk about her “being a child of 15 who didn’t understand the implications of her action” galls me. Strange how the people who promote that view are the very people who applaud and accept the knowledge and responsibility of those, many far younger than 15, who marched because THEY understood the threat of climate change.

    When ( not if) she comes back she will need to be closely monitored for possibly the rest of her life. There are dozens more like her; how certain are those oozing sympathy that every one of these will not try and radicalise others or take more drastic action.

    She, and they, are only returning because ISIS has been defeated, militarily, in one region of the world. She, and they, are not renouncing the barbarity that is ISIS; they are still ‘believers’ with all that entails.

  • David Pocock 18th Feb '19 - 7:02pm

    I dont think the question is would we think the same if she was white (really that makes no impact on my judgement here) But would we if she was a guy. I doubt so many would be shedding tears if a man who left to join isis and returned still sympathetic to them and wanting to return to a country they clearly dont care about just because it is more convenient.

    But for my 2p I fear I might be predictable. all of them should return and face trial for any crimes and go through de-radicalizing programs. The liberal in me will spare them from the groveling public apology they should issue for effectively committing treason and siding with a group that has been murdering their countrymen. That said as a part of their remaining a free British citizen they should cut out all and any support for a terror group.

  • Jayne Mansfield 18th Feb '19 - 9:56pm

    She is not a victim.

    I am shocked that there is some distorted morality at play when the perpetrators of some wrongdoing are afforded victim status, rather than those who have suffered because of their actions. whether that be direct or indirect.

    I am pretty sure that normal fifteen year olds that I have had dealings with, knew the difference between right and wrong.

    No wonder liberalism has become repellant to so many.

  • nvelope2003 18th Feb '19 - 9:59pm

    How are the authorities going to get useful evidence for the proposed court proceedings ? This all seems a bit airy fairy to me. It is irritating that no one seems to be able to answer these difficult questions but just go rambling on with the same old cliches. There you are I’ve said it but it will not make a scrap of difference.

  • @expats

    “However, all this talk about her “being a child of 15 who didn’t understand the implications of her action” galls me.”

    I have to agree. It wouldn’t surprise me if it is the same said people who argue that people should be given the vote at 16.
    On the one hand they will argue that a child of 15 is not older enough and responsible enough to be held to account for their actions, but then in the next breath argue that just a year later they are old enough to vote.

    @Jayne Mansfield

    “I am pretty sure that normal fifteen year olds that I have had dealings with, knew the difference between right and wrong.”
    Agree wholeheartedly. There are many of us who have suffered tragedy and the most awful childhoods and had the most heinous crimes committed against us, however, that does not make us run off and join extremist organisations or cults.

    I am just waiting for some of the more extreme liberals to start arguing that her Dutch Husband, converted to Islam should be allowed to join her in the UK as they have a right to a family life. Nothing would surprise me here anymore, i’m afraid

  • I am afraid we extend our Liberalism to unworthy causes to this Begum woman and totally forget about the victims of her sick ideology. The ideology that promotes the whole extermination of groups of people such as LGBT, non-Muslims etc. Let her stay in the Middle East and try to do some good. Help the communities who have suffered under the Islamic death cult.
    Somehow this will never happen. All she is after now is British welfare payments to finance her and her child’s existence here in the UK.

  • Stephen Howse 19th Feb '19 - 8:06am

    “All she is after now is British welfare payments to finance her and her child’s existence here in the UK.”

    Those would be the “some British values” she says she now supports, then!

  • It’s not about being liberal. It’s about accepting that the law means she is entitled to come back, so we should get on with working out what will happen when she does return so we have some proper control of the situation, and it doesn’t become a PR tool for extremists.

    From a very practical point of view, we need to know more about how teens and other vulnerable people are radicalised, and that’s probably best achieved by controlling how she returns to the UK, and what we do with her once she’s back. I too have been chilled by her tone when talking about what’s happened to her in recent years, but absolutely accept the point that she may well be experiencing a kind of PTSD, or feeling she has to perform to the media in a way that impresses a particular demographic. We all know that women in abusive relationships are prone to defending their abusers, or acting as if everything is fine, often not fully appreciating the full extent of the abuse until they have more objectivity. I’m not sufficiently qualified to second guess, nor is anyone else making bold judgements.

    So from a very practical point of view. Of course she has to return, but that doesn’t mean we see her as an entirely innocent victim and at the very least, she will be a source of vital intelligence that may save lives in the future.

  • Jayne M
    “She is not a victim.”
    Something amiss at the London school she went to.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Feb '19 - 12:55pm

    She was at not upset by severed heads, I find that difficult to understand. The subject of gay people being pushed from roof top level, I find difficult too. Children turned into bombs. Her child is named after a famous war lord. Yes, she does want the money, and again, she says Manchester was acceptable.
    I think it revolves around freedom and what you actually feel society should be.
    Corbyn has got himself into a corner because……. There is a difference between liberal actions and fairness to the population as a whole.

  • David Becket 19th Feb '19 - 2:31pm

    My original view was that as a British citizen we had no choice but to let her come back, but keep a very close eye on her and consider prosecution.
    I now see she suggests the Arena bombing was justified, and that she is OK with brutal methods. I might not be a true liberal, but I do not want her anywhere near this country.

  • looks like she is having her citizenship revoked after all.

    It appears that she must have had Bangladeshi dual nationality in order for the home office to do this.
    If this is indeed the case, then thank goodness for that . The home office must use all available powers at it’s disposal in order to punish those who join these terrorist regimes as well as act as a strong deterrent to others.
    Actions must have consequences and age is no excuse

  • “I have been struck by the words written about how she shows and almost-psychopathic lack of emotion when telling the story of seeing a human head in a bucket. This, I find, is an interesting take on something by non-experts without experience in the field.”

    As an expert in this field the first thing I thought after watching the media was that she appeared detached, there was no emotion, no empathy. She could justify the actions of others which caused suffering. Very much like a psychopath.

  • matt
    “she must have had Bangladeshi dual nationality”
    It is a question that she has Bangladesh nationality now and this will come before a British court.
    The Kurds will not be pleased as they want to get rid of such people quickly.

  • I completely agree with this blog. I have been searching the internet for some sign of compassion for this young woman, and havent found much. I think a lot of the rejection of her is misogynist, racist and smacks of the mob. Also, apparently her mother died of cancer about a year before she left (see Guardian article in 2015) and father remarried. Why is that never mentioned? She was already traumatised amd ‘lost’ when she left uk. I wish we were still a forgiving, compassionate society :(.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Feb '19 - 3:57pm

    What we have is a young person with a child; we must give them a future. If she is allowed to return then there must be due legal process. I do feel a certain compassion for her despite what she’s done, said and experienced. What would we have done in similar circumstances and of her age? She is possibly in some state of shock and as such her words do not have the same relevance as they would in other circumstances.

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