The news this week has been full of reports about Shamima Begum, the London school girl who at 15 years old, in February 2015, left her home and family in Britain, travelled to Syria and became an Isis Bride. Now that Isis is losing territory, Shamima finds herself in a refugee camp asking to please return home to Britain. Public opinion and government policy has decided she turned her back on Britain and is no longer British. But is she the victim or the enemy?
|The enemy case||The victim case|
Shamima is 19, an adult. She should take responsibility for her views and actions. Even when she left at 15 that is above the age of criminal responsibility – she knew what she was doing was illegal.
|Shamima was 15 when she left – that makes her a child. Although she is now an adult she is still only 19, we know the brain does not stop developing until someone is 25.|
|Most of the teenage girls who joined Isis groomed themselves by actively looking for Isis propaganda online. She chose to watch those videos and learn that ideology. After her school friend joined Isis she was interviewed and could have got help but she didn’t tell anyone she was planning to go to Syria too. She stole her sisters passport and sold family jewellery to afford to travel.||She was groomed – we know young people are groomed for many things including sexual abuse, gang membership and terrorism. We know Shamima was watching Isis propaganda online before her trip. We also know that school friends of hers had also made the trip, some in the months before Shamima and some who travelled with her.|
|On joining Isis, Shamima embraced all their ideology. She accepts their arguments that terrorist attacks such as Manchester are justified. She accepts that Yazidis women are raped as acceptable because Shia Muslims are doing the same thing in Iraq. She sees life in Isis as a good life.||Brainwashed – On arrival in Raqqa, Shamima and her two friends were locked in a compound where an older woman was tasked with “purifying their Western minds” and teaching them about Sharia Law. During this time they were not trusted, regularly tested and only allowed out under chaperone. There are reports that some Isis recruits who failed this testing time and who were not found trustworthy (e.g. if they criticised any aspect of Isis) were publicly executed. This reminds me of the scenes in the book 1984 where Big Brother sets out to reprogram its citizens.|
|She marries an Isis fighter Yago Riedijk, a convicted terrorist who is accused of planning an attack on a rock festival. A witness has reported that he was “the right hand of a high-ranking [Islamic State] member in Iraq”. Shamima describes her marriage as the best thing about being in ISIS. Shamima claims she only acted as a housewife during this time and therefore has not done anything wrong.||Sexual exploitation and Statutory rape – Having passed the trust test, ten days after her arrival, Shamima was married to a 23 year old Dutch man. In Britain a child of 16 may get married with their parents consent but a child of 15 may not. “Individuals aged 15 or younger in United Kingdom are not legally able to consent to sexual activity, and such activity may result in prosecution for statutory rape or the equivalent local law.” An adult having sex with a child is also usually considered a paedophile.|
|Shamima spent a large part of her time having babies who were supposed to be the next generation of Isis fighters. Even when her parents begged her to come home she ignored them.||Grief – Shamima spent 27 out of the 48 months she has been away from home pregnant with three children. The oldest two children died – something no mother wants to experience. If you watch video footage of her holding her newborn son she seems awkward with him, there appears to be limited eye contact, minimal touch between mother and baby. Mothers who experience loss may struggle to bond with their children as their is the fear of attaching and re-experiencing the heartbreak of loss. My guess is Shamima has had no grief counselling, no mental health trained midwife to support her new family.|
|Shamima saw “severed heads” in bins – something she says did not faze her. This shows a level of acceptance to something which would surely be horrendous for any person with a shred of morality to see.||Dissociation – Shamima has spent so much of her adolescence surrounded by terror that she has become numb. Dissociation is a human defence mechanism which allows us to survive in times of trauma.|
|Shamima shows no remorse. She thinks people should see her as a victim when she spent the last four years seeing Britain as her enemy.||Shamima said “The caliphate is over. There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory.”|
The trouble is that trying to decide if a person is all good or all evil is always going to lead to only seeing one side of an argument. No one is all good or all evil except in a particular kind of goodies and baddies fiction.
I don’t think the way we are currently treating Shamima is unique. I see parallels with the way we as a society view drug addicts – “they are bad, they steal, they lie, they waste their lives, they are a waste of space…” but for many people who have drug addictions, there were very difficult circumstances which led to their substance misuse – maybe trauma, maybe pain, maybe a lack of love. Or the way we view the homeless “lazy, beggars, expect handouts, they should help themselves” – but the truth is most people in the UK are only a few months salary away from bankruptcy.
There used to be arguments in the church about “free will” vs “determinism” – if God knows everything does that mean that all our choices are already decided or are our choices really ours to make. I see parallels with the current psychology of patterns of behaviour – our past experiences creates the frame we view life through and impacts on the actions we take. On this basis the question is not “would I have done what they did” but “having lived their life, might I have done what they did”? But we are not robots, people do still have choices.
People do not set out to be evil, they make moral decisions and impulsive choices based on how they see and experience the world. This does not necessarily mean that all crimes should be forgiven and forgotten but it does mean that we can’t simplify the response by turning what is grey into black and white – good vs evil. We are all more complex people than that.