Lessons from the Shamima Begum case: Racist populism and collective guilt

Shamima Begum's face being used for target practice at a shooting range in Merseyside.

Jahangir Mohammed says the Shamima Begum case demonstrated the power of populist propaganda and racist laws in holding Muslims collectively guilty for crimes they didn’t commit.  

The mainstream media (MSM) often drives itself and its consumers into a cycle of racist frenzy. This tends to result in calls for new laws and actions against those perceived as “foreign”, and not really belonging on these shores, usually Muslims and people of colour.

The MSM and the state in collusion, adopt the well-worn political strategy, that in order to deny and deprive “foreigners” of their rights, you must at first demonise them. In this strategy, facts, education and informed decision making are replaced by propaganda, trial by media, and the nurturing of the lynch mob mentality. Which in turn persuades people into thinking and acting in a certain way, in support of government actions, reinforces prejudices and stereotypes, and fuels “far-right” mentality.

This of course, is exactly what also happens in wars, and is the very strategy used by the Baathists of ISIS to successfully persuade many to join their cause. As someone who is aware of their online propaganda, I can confidently say that it is very persuasive, and very few parents or schools have the tools or capacity to deal with it.

Racism, sex and women

The latest target of this media frenzy has been 19-year-old Shamima Begum, who went to seek a new life in Syria under a ‘caliphate’ created by ISIS, at the age of 15. In the process, she married a Dutch fighter, and has had three children by two different men.

Lots of young girls make stupid decisions at the age of 15 or younger, especially around relationships with older men. Many young girls have sex below the legal age of consent and get pregnant. You only have to visit prisons in this country to see the number of young women who are in relationships with dangerous individuals, drug dealers, violent criminals and serial fraudsters. Yet, these women are not held responsible for the crimes of their partners, unless they themselves were involved or complicit in them.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship.

Shamima on the other hand has been presented as a consenting adult for whom the age of criminal responsibility started at the age of 10, and who was responsible for her own actions. Sadly, many Muslims even adopted this view.

Imagine if we applied this logic to the white girls involved in the “Asian grooming” cases, we would end up with the absurd view that many of them initially consented to have underage sex, were hanging around older men, and put themselves in that situation, as well as breaking the law and ultimately responsible for their own actions!

Shamima on the other hand is brown skinned, dresses like a foreigner, covers her head, and married fighters belonging to the “most evil” group on the planet. For the media she is not deserving of understanding or sympathy, let alone factual reporting. Having been sufficiently demonised, she was stripped of her UK citizenship, under racist immigration laws. Here it is noticeable that Samantha Lewthwaite the “white widow” has not had her citizenship revoked. Nor has “Jihadi Jack”, a white middle-class boy, who did not elicit the same vitriol and frenzied reporting as Shamima. Nor is there a demand for his citizenship to be removed, as he is a dual Canadian-British national. To put it bluntly, he would only be sent to what is considered another white country (Canada), not a brown one like Bangladesh, and there would be little point in that.

The real threat to national security

There is of course a genuine security threat to the West from returning fighters who were with ISIS.  After all, if you wage war against someone, then it is expected those whom you wage war against, and their supporters, will try to retaliate in some way. Even more so if you destroy the state they happen to fervently believe in, as happened with the Taliban, the Iraqi Baathist state, and the ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

The aftermath of an Assad regime air attack in Idlib.

Yet, while the threat is real, we must also keep a sense of perspective.

Many British Muslims who went to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, to Bosnia to fight the Serbs, and even to Syria to fight the Assad regime have returned, and do not see the UK as an enemy, nor have they waged war against their home country.

Most of those who went to Syria initially did not go to fight against fellow Muslims, but to stop the atrocities of the Assad regime against his own people. Most did not even join ISIS, as incorrectly portrayed by the media. Even those like Shamima who went in search of a new life, were persuaded that it was their religious duty to make “Hijra” (religious migration) to what they wrongly believed was a legitimate caliphate, are unlikely to have left to fight against the UK. If Forbes statistics are to be believed, some 425 ISIS fighters have already returned to the UK, therefore it is not clear why a 19-year-old with a newborn child poses a greater threat than those fighters that have already returned and been assessed as low risk.

It is worth noting that ISIS was not actually a Syrian group but an Iraqi militia emerging out of the havoc created by the US-led military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. The real threat to our national security and that of the region is the consequence of that intervention and the behaviour of Bashar Al Assad against his own people.

Trial by media, collective guilt, and punishment

The War on Terror has reintroduced the notion of collective guilt and punishment, which the European colonialists practiced on native peoples when faced with resistance to their occupation. This logic and the policies emanating from it, is mainly applied to Muslims and people of colour.

Instead of dealing with acts of individuals and those leaders of groups who endorse war crimes and violence against civilians, Western policy seeks to collectively punish entire groups of people and countries. For the 9/11 attacks, the entire population of Afghanistan and Iraq have been punished, and most of those found in the wrong area are portrayed as “terrorists”.  This logic has now been adopted as official policy in the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 (CTBS Act), with the possibility of designated terrorist zones in different parts of the world.

Let us imagine if this policy was applied to white Europeans and their crimes. Every Nazi soldier would have been punished for the crimes of their leaders. Black South Africans would be demanding punishment of every white person and government that ever supported the Apartheid regime; and the Palestinian and Iraqi people would be demanding punishment for all those that support wars against them. That is exactly what ISIS argues, which almost the entire Muslim majority world insists is not permissible.

The Geneva Conventions and rules of war

It is precisely to avoid these types of situations that international rules of war and conventions were introduced. We need to treat every person that is captured as a prisoner of war or civilian communities in a conflict situation, under these rules. Facts need to be established for each individual as to how people came to be in that situation, the nature of their involvement, and if they committed crimes. Or, as ended up as in many cases (in areas taken over by ISIS) being forced to fight for Daesh.

The chance of rehabilitation for those who made mistakes should also not be abandoned. As Muslims, we should also remember that such policies and rules of collective guilt and punishment are not part of normative Islamic rules of war or due process.

In Islam, no father is responsible for the crimes of the son and vice versa, this rule applies to wife and husband too. Losing one’s senses to emotions and media frenzy, and pandering to it, is also not an Islamic quality.

Jahangir Mohammed is the Director of the Centre for Muslim Affairs.

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