Of all the racist slurs I had to endure on the streets of London as a child from a minority background, perhaps the one that affected me the most was the pejorative command: “Go back to where you came from.”
The absurdity of this pronouncement was not lost on me, given that I was born and bred in the city. Nonetheless, it instilled in me an unmistakable sense of “otherness” that occasionally resurfaces to this day despite my best efforts to shake it off.
Now, many years later, what was back then a form of throwaway, ground-level antagonism appears to have become an official government position.
The cancelling of Shamima Begum’s British citizenship in 2019 made it clear: in the same way that some of George Orwell’s characters in Animal Farm were more equal than others, in the eyes of the state, some Britons are more British than others.
Under international law, cancelling citizenship is only permissible if it does not leave an individual stateless. Shamima, who left her East London home for Syria in 2015 at the age of 15, never held second citizenship, and thus the decision to cancel her British citizenship – and leave her stateless – was indisputably unlawful.
Then Home Secretary Sajid Javid – who, ironically is of the immigrant stock himself – tried to legitimise the move by pointing to Shamima’s Bangladeshi heritage, and claiming that she could just go back to her parents’ country of origin.
Javid made this claim knowing that Shamima has never stepped foot in the country and has at no point possessed a Bangladeshi passport. He tried to palm her, despite the country’s foreign ministry clearly asserting that Shamima “is not a Bangladeshi citizen. She is a British citizen by birth and never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh … There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.”
Javid also tried to defend his controversial decision by citing unspecified “security concerns”. Given that Shamima would have undoubtedly been placed under the tightest of restrictions as soon as she stepped foot in Britain, it is hard to see what kind of a security risk she could have posed to her country. Hundreds of former ISIL (ISIS) fighters and supporters have returned to the United Kingdom over the last few years. Presumably, whatever measures are in place to keep them in line would have also applied to Shamima.
The wider implication of Javid’s decision is that for anyone of immigrant background – and let us be honest here, that would apply in large part to people of colour – being British comes with conditions. Those conditions may manifest themselves only in extreme circumstances – in Shamima’s case accusations of having joined a “terrorist organisation” – but they are conditions nonetheless.
Now, some may refer to the case of Jack Letts or “Jihadi Jack” by way of refuting this argument. That is, those who have even heard of him, given the lack of media coverage he receives compared with Shamima. To remind ourselves, Jack is an Oxford-born white middle-class Muslim convert who travelled to Syria and stands accused of joining ISIL. He only ever held a British passport, but qualifies for Canadian citizenship through his father. Javid stripped him of his British citizenship in late 2019.
On the surface, the cases of Shamima and Jack seem very similar. But a look at the timeline of events raises some interesting questions. Jack travelled to Syria in 2014 – a year before Shamima. Shamima’s citizenship was revoked just one day after the first television interview she gave in a Syrian refugee camp, in February 2019. Jack’s was taken away a full six months later. One could be forgiven, therefore, for concluding that the action against Jack had as much to do with a hasty demonstration of consistency as anything else; almost as if it was an afterthought. If Javid could make a swift decision about Shamima, why could he not do the same about Jack?
Chris Daw, a UK-based barrister and author of Justice on Trial, said he believes the decision against Shamima was motivated by the public furore following her interview, in which she appeared unrepentant for her actions.
“The reality here is that this was a political decision by Sajid Javid,” he said. “It was made to try to court public opinion. But this kind of populist approach, where the decision isn’t made on the basis of any basic principle of fairness, or indeed any thought of just how racist the decision-making was, is very problematic. It reveals that those politicians are only interested in sounding good in the press, getting positive media coverage and getting people thumping the table in pubs up and down the country.”
But these are not mutterings simply confined to the dusty drinking-holes of small-town Britain. Toxic judgements directed at Shamima have come from all levels of British society and beyond, including from educated urbanites and even the highest of state institutions, much of it playing out in mainstream and social media. It is a judgement that appears almost unanimous in its ferocity, with alarming numbers of people sharing British journalist Piers Morgan’s sentiments when he tweeted that Shamima should “rot in hell”.
In the media circus engulfing Shamima, it appears there is little space to allow for the fact that in the eyes of the law she was an underage victim of online grooming and, as such, may have had little agency over her actions.
“A 15-year-old who is groomed online deserves our protection,” said Daw, “and the fact that she was so successfully groomed and manipulated into travelling to a war zone and into having multiple children at a very young age who tragically passed away makes her plight worse. She is clearly a victim of human trafficking of the most extraordinary and worst kind and we should be doing everything we can to get her home and support her.”
The public response to Shamima’s experience is notable in its contrast to the collective outpouring of sympathy for other teenage victims of grooming. What, one wonders, could be the reason for this?
“It’s only because she has brown skin and she has some distant family connection to Bangladesh, a country she hasn’t even visited, that Shamima is being treated differently,” observed Daw. “A 15-year-old girl who happens to have Bengali origins should be treated exactly the same as any other English-born girl.”
“Around the whole issue of grooming gangs, white girls have been at the front and centre as the victims, but there’s no discussion about brown girls who have also been victims,” British social commentator Sunny Hundal concurred. “I think there is definitely an element of racism in this.”
But Hundal also accepts that any sympathy for Shamima has been overshadowed by her defiant and unapologetic attitude during her first interview.
“I don’t believe Shamima’s story is a clear-cut case of Islamophobia or racism,” he said. “We’re talking about a terrorist group who at that time was the biggest story in the world. Initially, Shamima came across as quite unapologetic. She seemed adamant that she hadn’t made a mistake by joining ISIS. She has changed her story over time, so you can understand the controversy over whether you view her as a victim or a perpetrator.”
Indeed, few have not been aghast at Shamima’s impenitent assertions about the atrocities committed by ISIL, which include numerous deadly attacks across the world as well as countless beheadings.
But suggesting that Shamima nonetheless deserves due legal process does not denigrate the victims of these attacks. To acknowledge that Shamima was trafficked and that she lost three children by the time she reached 22 is not to absolve her of her alleged crimes.
As a television correspondent, I covered the war extensively from inside Syria. I saw the suffering the people there had endured at the hands of armed groups such as ISIL, not to mention the Bashar al-Assad regime itself. I witnessed the remnants of pain etched onto their faces, the kind of sorrow that permeates the very core of every being who has experienced torture, terror and the death of loved ones.
That is why it is imperative that, as a global community, we recognise their suffering, along with the suffering of those affected by ISIL terror attacks in the UK and elsewhere in the world. They all deserve justice and few would disagree that the perpetrators of these attacks should be held accountable. If those perpetrators are minor, they too must bear criminal responsibility within the remit of a legal framework befitting their status.
But to unceremoniously strip Shamima of her citizenship, to deny her a fair trial and to subject her to relentless, venomous verbal abuse is to diminish our own humanity. It is to ride roughshod against societal structures that mark out a civilised society from the barbaric lawlessness in which groups such as ISIL thrive.
In 1993, two young British boys were accused of torturing and murdering a two-year-old boy named Jamie Bulger. Their actions sent shockwaves across the entire nation. Yet both boys were given a fair trial and justice was subsequently served. What logical reason is there for Shamima not to have access to the same process?
In a recent television interview, Sajid Javid said he had seen damning information about Shamima’s activities in Syria. If this is the case, he should supply the evidence to the courts rather than blithely inform us that he knows something we don’t, while nudging and winking in the manner of a shifty backstreet vigilante.
Like Shamima, I too am of Bangladeshi heritage. Just as I cannot “go back to where I came from” neither can she. Britain is where we belong. We have nowhere else to go. But her treatment has taught me that I too am subject to conditions other Britons are not. Only when Shamima’s citizenship is reinstated will our faith in the country of our birth be restored.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.