The Ethics Of… The Shamima Begum Saga

It’s been a while, but I did say I’d come back for the occasional post if something significant caught my eye – the whole sorry saga of Shamima Begum, who left the UK to join ISIS would not normally qualify as that, especially now when she’s apparently realised her mistake and is trying to come back home.

But then the UK Government revoked her citizenship. And then virtually everyone who read about that reacted along the lines of “good, she’s getting what she deserves!”.

Yeah that got my attention alright.

So just to re-cap the pertinent facts here: a 15 year old girl gets groomed into an extremist cult, to the point where she abandons her entire life, moves to an active warzone, gets married off and pregnant at 16, and loses her first two kids.

And the British government’s response to this is to revoke her citizenship? Classy stuff, but not quite as classy as the aforementioned people who commented on the various news posts along the lines of “good, she’s getting what she deserves!”.

You bloody cowards.

You know why you hate this girl? Because you know, deep down, that in the right circumstances you could have been corrupted just as easily. And it’s safer for you to pretend she’s an inexplicable, unsalvagable monster than it is for you to accept that. And that is goddamn cowardice.

Do I agree with her choices? Of course not. Do I think she’s safe to return to the UK? Not without some major deprogramming. But is the best solution abandoning her in a war zone without citizenship, breaching both international and UK law, effectively making her Syria’s problem, and basically guaranteeing the death of her newborn? Fuck no. Just like Trump’s wall and our ‘boat people crisis’, this is a government taking advantage of people’s fear to win votes.

And you know what we call someone who makes decisions based on fear?


If you’re looking for a slightly more, *ahem*, nuanced discussion on the whole ‘revoking citizenship’ thing, then I actually wrote about that a few years ago in some detail, which you can find here:





11 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… The Shamima Begum Saga

  1. Well said Gordon, I agree with you entirely. Whilst this young woman made poor choices if she was the child of any person with the power to bring her home to the UK and provide her with the support needed it would even make the news it would have quietly happened. Compassion…..

  2. We have many refugees to accommodate and we need to prioritise. Her previous citizenship should not be a criteria in my view.

    • That’s not a bad point in regards to the effort being spent on this specific case, but the broader context is still a big problem here; if the government is allowed to revoke citizenship like this we set a very dangerous precedent whereby they can make anyone stateless, without trial. Basically they can remove all your rights and legal protections on a whim.

  3. Nice to see you back, even if just for a short visit to the blogosphere. This is certainly a worthy topic. I really have no argument with anything you’ve said here. I share your concern about both the lack of compassion and the setting of a dangerous precedent.

    I am also concerned about the bigger picture of our lack of desire to forgive people, a lack of desire to define what people can do to move past the mistakes of their past. While I fully support movements like #metoo the shaming and call out culture in general seems to only e about delivering verdicts and not about providing paths to redemption. The Liam Neeson story seems a good example where you have someone talking about something stupid they did a long time ago, and they are being punished now for who they were and not who they are now. This girl’s mistakes as a 15 year old shouldn’t be what defines her. And as you say, if it was some cult, nobody would bat an eye if we wanted to take her back. But because it’s ISIS there is something more detestable about it, even though the reasons she sought the comfort of an extremist ideologist is not that different from why one might join a cult. Which are often extreme in their own way. Although I guess some people aren’t even forgiving to people in cults. I remember our department secretary, when I was a grad student, hearing about all those people in that cult who committed suicide, saying that they all deserved it for being so stupid.

    Although Canada’s PM took a lot of heat (although it actually had nothing to do with it) Omar Khadr received a 10 million dollar settlement when the previous PM failed to bring this kid, who was forced by his father to join ISIS at 15, out of Guantanamo even though he had rights as a Canadian citizen to be tried in Canada. I always feel it’s ironic, because it seems that the people who cry foul the loudest about these lost souls who join extremist ideologies are usually ideological fanatics themselves rather than approach these situations on a case by case basis.

    • Greta to hear from you as always Swarn! Yeah just a brief visitation, though might be finding myself over your way next year if this book situation goes well! Will keep you updated.

      Critical point you make there – ethics for me has always been about the consequences of the various choices we can make, rather than any concept of values or fairness. Mapping out a path for rehabilitation/redemption or at least compensation is critical in that. Just call someone out and you leave them with nowhere constructive to go; odds are good they’ll just regress.

      Extremely good point about the extremists fearing extremists, very interesting phenomenon there. Could it be as simple as people seeking enemies to provide themselves with purpose/clarity? Or maybe they see something of themselves in there and find it terrifying enough to try crushing.

      • If you have a book tour that takes you to Pennsylvania I’ll definitely attend! Either way, I hope you find success. The combination of your intellect and writing skill is certainly worthy of a book tour!

        I’ve read a lot about the value of shaming and “public court” and while it does seem to be a justice system we have often relied on, like you I feel like it leads to regression over progression. If we’ve made mistakes, no matter how bad, we need to know that there is at least some path towards acceptance again or I don’t see why we’d make the effort to change. While it might be nice to believe that we would do it for our own personal benefit, in the end we are social creatures, being a good person in isolation isn’t really of value to ourselves or society it seems. I think also that the idea that we have free will is harmful towards us making progress in restorative justice over retributive justice.

        Could it be as simple as people seeking enemies to provide themselves with purpose/clarity? Or maybe they see something of themselves in there and find it terrifying enough to try crushing.

        I think both are possible, although I lean towards the latter. I believe a lot of our attitudes towards things is projection coupled with the fact that very few people seem to reflect on their own attitudes and feelings. It’s there though on some level, but they project outwards instead of looking inwards. Certainly an argument could be made towards the former, especially in religious extremism. If you believe the world to be a battleground of good an evil, a belief that you are on the side of good simply makes all those who are different on the side of evil, your purpose is certainly clear. And the farther to the extreme you slide in that belief, the greater the clarity of purpose.

  4. Cheers Swarn, I’ll definitely let you know!

    Ha, excellent point about free will and its implications for the justice system – hard to hold an individual responsible if you recognise them as being the product of their environment, right? Where does ultimate responsibility land if we can just pointing to context? I’ve very strongly in the determinist camp, which I sort of accidentally discovered fits my politics very well indeed, hahaha

  5. I’m very unsympathetic to Shamima, I think she made a choice and I’m inclined to let her live with it. But I find your arguments convincing..if she were my kid I’d certainly want her back, and probably the government shouldn’t have the power to simply revoke citizenship. Perhaps, rather, she should be brought back, tried in a juvenile court, and sentenced to whatever is deemed appropriate for an accessory to murder who is under eighteen.

    • Hi butimbeautiful, thanks for the comment. I agree – I don’t think sympathy for the individual is necessary to object to the abuse of power, or at the least the bad precedent to allow abuse of power to occur. Ultimately the question should be ‘what will lead to the best possible outcome here?’ and leaving her in Syria is definitely not that.

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