Shamima Begum: History and politics matters

Lee Jarvis (UEA) and Tim Legrand (University of Adelaide)

It’s been a little difficult to avoid the story of teenager Shamima Begum over the last couple of days. Here we have a nineteen year old British citizen who, four years ago (as a child), left her home in London and travelled to Syria out of an apparent sympathy for the so-called ‘Islamic State’. Having recently surfaced in a refugee camp – heavily pregnant (having since given birth) – and requesting a return to the UK, the British state has now moved to strip her of her citizenship. Having Bangladeshi parents, the suggestion appears now to be that she could apply for citizenship of Bangladesh – a country she seems never to have visited.

It seems likely that the Home Office’s actions will face legal challenge, but the degree of political and media investment in this case, in the meantime, has been interesting. The quality of commentary around it has been uneven, to say the least (see here where the ‘brainwashing’ of one’s relatives provides authority on the threat Begum poses to the UK). And, with few exceptions (such as this piece in the Guardian) the commentary has often focused on two big questions. First, whether or not ‘allowing’ Begum to return to the UK would impact national security, either directly or through the setting of a bad example to others. The second question focuses on the legal issues around some of the most zealous performances of toughness and seriousness from the Home Secretary downwards: what are Begum’s rights within domestic and international law; what is the citizenship status of her child; what are the obligations of Bangladesh to her; and, what does it mean to render someone stateless today?

Given the timing, it is, of course, hard not to see such performances as nakedly self-interested, and – in that sense – very nakedly political. There is, though, a broader politics at play in this case, too, which is also worth mentioning. That is, the banning of ‘terrorists’ and ‘terrorist organisations’ is, at least in the recent period, a crucial part of the process by which states such as the United Kingdom imagine and construct their national identity. It involves identifying threats as so antithetical to the (in our case, British) body politic that they simply must be banished, expelled, or outlawed. How can it be otherwise? Where we are liberal, they are illiberal; where we love life, they celebrate death; where we are tolerant; they are intolerant; and where we love freedom, they abhor it. Proscribing organisations such as Daesh/ISIS – and stripping British citizens of citizenship for their support for such organisations – is, in other words, a way of performing ‘our’ Britishness: of confirming our superiority to those illiberal, threatening others. That the dynamic relies upon remarkably illiberal processes and outcomes, seldom gets mentioned.

But this process of expulsion is also one with very long historical roots, whereby states such as the United Kingdom have an extensive track record of casting out those identified as threats (or, in contemporary parlance, those not conducive to the public interest). In centuries past, agricultural or animalistic metaphors often accompanied this process: the banished was referred to as ‘forest man’ in Nordic society, or akin to the ‘wolf’ in Icelandic law and beyond. And such designation – as for Begum today – had serious implications, as implied in the account of the 13th century jurist Henry of Bracton: ‘For it is a just judgment that he who has refused to live by the law should perish without law and without judgment’. Our point, then, is that – across the centuries – the UK (and other countries, too) has used such powers against all manner of identified traitors and threats, from Scottish clans, to political dissidents, fascists, colonial resistance movements and Irish republicans (at least some of which might not be classified as meriting such treatment today). Let us not forget such histories – and the politics in which they are implicated – in the rush to expel new ‘threats’: ‘jihadi brides’ or otherwise.

Lee Jarvis and Tim Legrand are currently working on a monograph on the politics of proscription – or banning – terrorist organisations for Manchester University Press, having published a number of articles on this theme to date. To read more, here’s a recent blog post on proscription and the play William Tell, and here’s one on the politics of banning terrorist groups.

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