Who is on the margins of British citizenship?

Shamima Begum’s case paints a larger picture of Islamophobia.

Leading questions: is this a question of humanity or leadership? Of giving someone a second chance?

The UK is home to one of the best multicultural cities in the world: London.

You can walk 15 minutes through Paddington and find three very different jostling communities: English, Arabic, and Kurdish. Go across the city and you’ll find Bangladeshi restaurants and Indian cuisine across the street in Shoreditch.

There was, however, a time when “Muslim looking” did not work out best for people of colour. Commuters sat in an uneasy silence when they traveled to work, trying not to notice the police holding their machine guns after the London “7/7” bombings. They felt the gaze of others, they could taste the tension in the air when they knew everyone wanted Muslim people to just stick within a community of fear.

The government drove that fear. It did little to stop those who chanted “f*ck off home” to the so-called “terrorists”.

You would hope that the UK has moved forward since the rise of Islamophobia in 2005, but recent news throws an old shadow of suspicion over the Muslim population in the country.

Shamima Begum loses her repatriation appeal

You may have heard the name Shamima Begum before as she was one of the three girls from Bethnal Green who left the UK, to join ISIS fighters in Syria, in 2015. Last week, she caused quite the debate on the international stage.

In 2019, she was stripped of her British citizenship by then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid when she was unexpectedly discovered in a Northern Syrian refugee camp. He had previously made it clear that she would never be welcomed back into the country.

She made an appeal to be repatriated in November 2022, but the Tribunal dismissed her challenge.

Since 2016, European statistic reports show that roughly 329 cases of prosecution for terrorism are going on in the UK, 40 of which have been publicly announced as linked to Syria.

The UK has been criticized for not implementing a strategy to bring back radicalized individuals who find themselves in refugee camps after the fall of ISIS. Other countries like the Netherlands and France have decided to bring back radicalized individuals in groups to deal with each individual on a case-by-case basis. This is necessary due to the spectrum of radicalization: someone could be willing to cooperate with security intelligence while someone else is completely against it. It is not as simple as trialing returnees and then sending them to prison. They have to be isolated so as not to influence other people.

Why does Shamima stand out? She has been the only returnee so far to be made stateless in a decision to refuse to take her back.

What’s the context behind Shamima’s case?

In 2019, Shamima was interviewed by Anthony Loyd, The Times journalist, in the refugee camp, and asked her family to keep trying to bring her home to the UK as she did not want to stay in Syria anymore. No surprise there. Since then, however, all legal challenges for repatriation have been dismissed.

Her legal team’s first challenge to get back British citizenship was made in February 2020 (9 months before the second one) with a case strongly focusing on how she was made illegally stateless by the decision. Statelessness means that a person is not considered a national by any state under its laws (and it’s illegal to leave someone stateless under international law).

That first appeal failed as the Tribunal insisted that she could acquire Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother’s family line, hence avoiding statelessness. This was heavily criticized since the Bangladeshi government publicly said that she would face the death penalty if she stepped foot on its territory. They made it clear that she was a British citizen and never applied for dual nationality — without which she ended up stateless.

Their second appeal focused heavily on the fact that Shamima was a victim of child exploitation while being radicalized by the extremist jihadist group at the age of 15. They concluded that the UK government should consider the fact that she could not give legal consent to leave and allow her to come home to face a trial.

That appeal was dismissed too based on protecting the UK from a “national security threat” — keeping her stateless and stuck in awful conditions in a Syrian refugee camp.

“The power to banish a citizen like this shouldn’t exist in the modern world”

When the Tribunal upheld the decision to strip Shamima of her citizenship, it (literally) illegally turned British citizenship into a privilege which someone has to earn rather than a fundamental right which people born, or settled, in the UK are entitled to.

In no situation should a citizen ever be stripped of their fundamental human right to return to their home country.

The denial of citizenship shows that we are all not really equal despite living in a system built on formal legal equality.

Is it too far to claim that people experience citizenship differently based on their background? Let’s consider.

“A national security threat”: how the UK government is tightening its grip on British homogeneity.

Homogeneity is when everybody looks the same, no one acts differently, and we all feel at home in a false sense of harmony.

Let’s leap back in history. Ever since the London “7/7” bombings, the UK government has tried to redefine “who is British” to them, which has (intentionally) excluded several communities like British Asians and Muslims.

Since the bombings were committed by British citizens, rather than a group of foreign radicals as were the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the government had to look at its population.

What they saw in Britain was a myriad of differences, but rather than celebrating them, they went after them.

Of course, this occurred amid the global war on terror in a story when the UK was already at odds with what to do about terrorism at home and abroad.

So the UK government took the only decision possibly plausible under a Tory majority: protect traditional British culture. To do this, it put two laws in place: it first passed the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act in 2006 which gave it the power to revoke citizenship. Then it introduced mandatory language courses and the “Life in the UK” test for people seeking to settle in the UK. These citizenship values tests suggest a darker conclusion: Britain does not want any of the perceived problematic “sexist cultural norms” or their influence to be brought in by immigrants from the Middle East.

As the Muslim community was pushed into the spotlight, a certain “us versus them” narrative was taking over British politics and media.

The Brexit referendum reinforced this narrative as immigration was the center of the debate. British Asians and British Muslims were put under increasing pressure to assimilate.

They had to prove that they belonged in Britain, shared similar values, and wanted to adopt the British way of life.

You must adopt the British way of life, they say

In conversation with one person who identifies with the British Muslim community, it was clear that one way of being British was impossible, everyone had their own heritage, but the tension caused by government propaganda was felt:

“Sometimes I do think, what if the UK government wanted to deport us back to our motherland? Based on what though? The troubles that terrorist groups who identify with the Islamic faith have caused, or are linked with, are indeed a threat to many people but they do not represent us. I say this as I get stopped at airports just because of my surname…”

Shamima’s case: falling between the cracks

It is worth mentioning how Sajid Javid prioritized the argument that Shamima was a threat to national security over the strong case of child exploitation and victim to radicalization when he decided that she could not return home.  

Although Shamima’s husband was returned to the Netherlands, she was denied repatriation to the UK.  

There is a certain stereotype that she falls victim to here. She was believed to have been a young Muslim female who had little understanding of what was going on, was groomed and brought over to Syria, then became an active threat and perpetrator of violence. She was always considered to be male-led every step of the way.  

Sajid Javid upheld the idea that young Muslim women are lost causes when he stripped her of citizenship: they cannot be de-radicalized or make any independent decisions to cooperate with British intelligence. Wrong!  

Shamima had made it very clear: she regretted her decision to leave the UK at the very young age of 15, and wanted to face justice in Britain, safe from the conditions of the Syrian refugee camp (where she lost 3 children to malnutrition). Of course, she will have to cooperate to get anywhere with the British intelligence service and justice system. But the government absolutely cannot turn its back on its nationals and must come up with a plan on how to bring back jihadist allies and hold them accountable.  

Since she is a young Muslim female though, she unfairly falls between the cracks of a British system that wants nothing to do with her.  

Is this a question of humanity or leadership? Of giving someone a second chance?

It’s an answer of punishment. The UK government had to make a decision that reflected the debate of “what do we do with them?” It would be wrong to believe that the Home Office did not take the case seriously and made an impulsive decision, as it was a very complex case in international security — it always is when the topic includes the black flag of terrorism. The UK government decided to frame Shamima as a warning: “this is what happens when you turn your back on Britain.” But critics have warned that this is not wise as it is seriously inhumane and does not offer a solution to building bridges in counterterrorism and cooperation.

A serious lack of leadership by Sajid Javid was proven when he brought the citizenship issue into play.

You cannot lead when your tone is vengeful and harmful.

Creating the atmosphere of “two-tier citizenship” where people feel more worthy of Britishness than others, will only lead to worse outcomes for human rights issues and belonging.

Final thoughts: it is time to remedy the past decades and explore ways to bring out the best of Britain: celebrate multicultural differences. Don’t limit belonging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *