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Repatriating ‘IS brides’

March 12, 2019

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THE case of Shamima Begum has triggered a fierce debate in the UK on how to respond to the issue of citizens who joined the militant Islamic State group in Syria now seeking to return home. Born and raised in Britain, Shamima was just 15 when she left in 2015. Discovered last month in a Syrian refugee camp, nine months pregnant and unrepentant, she nonetheless wished to return home. Her statements triggered a wave of moral outrage in the country, with Home Secretary Sajid Javid leading the charge to block ‘terrorists’ from entering the UK, and stripping Shamima of citizenship — a move decried as effectively rendering her stateless, thus contravening Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. News of her newborn’s death emerged on Friday, a tragedy that might have been avoided had they been repatriated to the UK.

There has been some contrite policy revision since, with the Foreign Office indicating that it was mulling ways to bring children of British IS fighters back to the UK. But with reports that two more British women of Pakistani descent similarly having had their citizenship revoked, the government insists such women freely chose to join IS and must accept the consequences — a legally and morally questionable position against citizens essentially brainwashed by a death cult. In truth, the UK ought to reckon with the consequences of its past and current actions. Shamima, like many young British Muslims born to migrant parents, grew up against the backdrop of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War and racial profiling post-7/7, as well as the Brexit vote and Windrush scandal in recent years. All these played heavily into the question of British identity and whether some citizens are more ‘British’ than others — a coded way of redefining the rights of non-white citizens as revocable privileges. And while many migrant communities remain insular, clinging to regressive traditions, this cannot be seen in isolation to the racist attacks and anti-immigration rhetoric they’ve experienced since the 1960s. These factors, and their analogues in other European countries, contributed to the alienation that made these so-called IS brides so susceptible to extremist propaganda and recruitment by IS.

Indeed, it is testament to how effectively the far-right agenda has permeated mainstream British politics that, instead of considering Shamima a citizen, a minor when she left, and likely a non-combatant — and debating how such citizens are to be repatriated, deradicalised and held accountable — the government is seeking to divest itself of a many-headed hydra it has had a large role in creating. Britain, and the West at large, must realise the folly of this form of nativism. Instead of mulling over ways to denationalise their own citizens, the UK and the European Union must resolve this issue through deradicalising repatriation programmes that are premised on international human rights obligations — and compassion.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2019