H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington.
LONDON — This week, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid decreed that Shamima Begum, a British member of the Islamic State currently in a Syrian refugee camp, would be deprived of her citizenship. Begum isn’t the first — and won’t be the last — example of a case like this, but she is the first to have attracted such widespread attention. And the home secretary’s move has just raised deeper questions.
After the 2005 London terrorist attacks, I was appointed by another home office secretary as deputy convenor of a working group on tackling extremism. I’ve studied the subject — in the West and the Arab world — ever since. I’m deeply disturbed by the home secretary’s decision. To be sure, Begum isn’t a sympathetic character. On the contrary, in interviews she comes across as unrepentant and undeserving of our pity.
But the overall media debate around Javid’s clearly political move shows that we’re far more concerned about what Begum and the Islamic State mean to us in the West than what extremism means for the people who have been most affected by it in places such as Syria. We fail to center their experiences in this discussion — as we have consistently done when it comes to most of our discussions on global terrorism. Syrians have suffered enough under the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State. We should not be leaving any of our own citizens who supported terrorism against Syrians there.
Moreover, the episode has revealed a lot about British society and the value of citizenship. We never consider stripping citizenship from serial rapists or mass murderers. Indeed, the wife of the man most responsible for the most bloodshed in Syria, Assad, is a British national — and she hasn’t had her citizenship removed.
But the home secretary has taken Begum’s citizenship away, arguing that he can because she is a dual national. He has to make that argument because otherwise he’d make her stateless, which is illegal under international law. Unfortunately for Javid, while Begum is the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, Bangladesh has said she’s not a citizen. It’s not clear how his argument then stands.
But a person born and bred in the United Kingdom can apparently be deprived of being British — just because Javid says so. That kind of power, absent of even judicial approval, is more arbitrary than many of our far less invasive counterterrorism laws. Don’t take my word for it: The government’s own reviewer of the legislation that Javid is using said so.
We can’t allow that in our democracy, the basic fundamental value of citizenship — hitting at the very basis of the modern nation state — could simply be erased with a pen without the slightest bit of involvement from our judiciary.
Beyond that, there is a precedent being set here that is clearly about race. The vast majority of white Britons in the U.K. do not have rights to other citizenships. We can’t deprive them of British nationality because it would make them stateless. In contrast, many if not most ethnic minorities can claim entitlement to other citizenships, even if they have never even visited those other countries. Establishing a policy under which people could be stripped of British nationality, because they might be able to claim or apply for another one, by virtue of ancestry, is directly discriminatory.
Incidentally, we’ve given the Islamic State an easy recruitment tool. As Amanda E. Rogers, an Islamic State expert who works with the United Nations and the State Department, told me: “Strip her citizenship, and you give ISIS exactly what they want. Hook, line, sinker — you have fallen for very obvious (and clearly stated in their own propaganda) manipulation.” Because that is what the Islamic State wants in the first place: for all Muslims to be denied citizenship and thus be forced to become subjects of the caliphate. We don’t need to do that work for them.
The British government should have detained Begum upon arrival and processed her case to the full extent of the law. That would have been just, and it would have also allowed us as a society to fulfill our responsibilities to her new child, who bears no moral blemish.
It would have allowed also us to lift just a little bit of our responsibility to the people of Syria. And it would have shown us remaining consistent to the rule of law and citizenship, in a world that so desperately needs both.