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As of November 2014, according to Statista, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had killed over 6,000 people in terrorist attacks that year alone. This number excludes “battlefield deaths inflicted on state and non-state combatants.”
In February 2015, Shamima Begum left the United Kingdom to join up.
Between that point and February 2019, when the Times found her in a refugee camp and her campaign to return to Britain began, the Global Terrorism Index reports that the group killed 6,141 in 2015 and 9,150 people in 2016.
After this, the numbers started to drop off, not because of any change of heart on the part of ISIS about its cause or methods but because it was losing; in September 2018 it controlled just 200km² of territory, down from around 100,000km² four years previously.
There are conflicting accounts of how Begum’s time in ISIS was spent. She claims that she was merely a housewife to one of the group’s fighters; other sources claim she “was allowed to carry a Kalashnikov rifle and earned a reputation as a strict “enforcer” of Isil’s laws”, and that she “stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating.”
All of which is useful context to bear in mind when considering the current rash of podcasts focusing on Begum, bearing such titles as I’m not a Monster (BBC) and Bring Me Home (The Times), or Times Magazine‘s decision to accompany its interview with her with a cover shoot, featuring Begum in western dress alongside teasers for hotel reviews and winter stew recipes.
Yet the tone of this coverage doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is a large and vocal constituency, at least amongst policymakers and the commentariat, who take a view which more or less amounts to the idea that teenagers make mistakes.
Which of course they do. But given where the British public stand on law and order, there is likely not much sympathy out in the land for the idea that Begum should receive much leniency on that basis. If Robert Thomson and John Venables were deemed capable of standing adult trial for the murder of James Bulger at the age of ten, why should Begum not bear the full and proper consequences of travelling to the Middle East to participate in the perpetration of the same evil on a mass scale?
Well, we might ask Joshua Baker, producer of the “riveting, award-winning” BBC podcast. He’s quoted in the Times as saying:
““Because,” he acknowledges, “there are different ways to tell the Shamima Begum story. There’s the one about a schoolgirl who was groomed and lured to a war zone by Isis and now needs saving from a detention camp. And then there’s the one about a traitor who must be stopped from ever coming back to Britain — a terrorist and a monster.””
This is true, in its own terms. But it is probably true of many of the reported 850 British citizens who went to fight for ISIS, and of a great number of history’s monsters. Unlike in fiction, the perpetrators of wickedness in real life are seldom cartoon villains, living their life according to some Dungeons & Dragons-style alignment chart where their response to any given situation is the option marked Evil.
It is fair, and even laudable, for the media to try and capture these complexities rather than sand them down in aid of a tidier narrative. To do otherwise is to repeat the mistake of, for example, the 2003 TV serial Hitler: The Rise of Evil, which had Robert Carlyle play the man as a weird, staring maniac in every scene and thus occluded the powerful charisma and personal charm which so facilitated the ascent of Nazism in interwar Germany.
But it stops being laudable when it strays over the line into creating a second, exonerative narrative that concludes that Begum needs “saving”. Her being “a schoolgirl who was groomed and lured to a war zone by Isis” may contextualise her being “a terrorist and a monster”, but it doesn’t contradict or excuse it.
And this storytelling has real-life consequences. Lawyers have been round the houses on the technicalities of Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke her British citizenship, but at the political level one suspects part of the reason there is such widespread resistance to allowing her to return is the strong suspicion that she wouldn’t face adequate justice if she did so.
Many advocates of reversing Javid’s decision seem to subscribe to the schoolgirl-who-needs-saving version of the Begum story; the very concept of treason, a crime she perpetrated by any useful definition, is deeply out of fashion in legal-academic circles. Bring her back and jail her forever is a perfectly coherent position, but seems to be held – or at least championed – by few.
Exile as a formal punishment may be banned by Article Nine of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but if people think a de facto version is the sternest punishment she’s going to get, many will be content for her to get it.
Which in a way makes the Begum issue just another facet of the broader criminal justice and rule-of-law debate, the dynamic of which is often people complaining about outcomes being lectured by others, usually lawyers or academics, explaining the process which produced the outcome, as if that were justification in itself.
But it isn’t; justice is a question of both means and ends, and as the long-running row over the ECHR illustrates, people will not forever bestow hallowed status on processes regardless of the results they produce.
So if you really want Begum back in the UK, start telling a story that ends in a long prison sentence.