Shamima Begum with her new-born baby last week
The United States and the United Kingdom have both turned their backs on brides of ISIS fighters who want to escape refugee camps in Syria.
In the US, President Trump has denied that 24-year-old Hoda Muthana, whose family lives in Alabama, is an American citizen, even though she was born in the US. And British home secretary Sajid Javid has stripped 19-year-old Shamima Begum of her citizenship even though she was born in the UK.
Right now the caliphate which they had hoped to serve has been reduced to a few square metres of rubble in Baghuz, a town in eastern Syria. They are living in tents in a concentration camp and reflecting on the misery of their mad adventure.
Hoda Muthana was married successively to three ISIS fighters and has a child. Shamima Begum left the UK when she was 15. Ten days after arriving in Raqqa, the ISIS capital, she was married to a Dutch ISIS fighter. She gave birth to three children, two of whom have died. Now both women want to go home.
The US government denies that Hoda Muthana is a US citizen. Her father was a diplomat from Yemen and children of diplomats do not acquire citizenship by being born on American soil. But it appears that her father had quit his job months before she was born.
And Shamima Begum’s parents were Bangladeshi, which the UK claims makes her a Bangladeshi citizen. To the embarrassment of the government, Bangladesh denies that she is.
So both women are, at the moment, stateless.
And a lot of people think that’s just fine. The editor of Spiked, Brendan O’Neill, spoke for much of the media in a blistering editorial in which he accused her of treason:
This despite the fact that she absolutely has done something wrong. Beyond wrong, in fact. She travelled thousands of miles to join a neo-fascistic cult that massacres Kurds and Iraqis and Syrians, beheads dissenters, executes homosexuals, treats women as imbeciles, and inspires its Western backers to carry out barbaric attacks on men, women and children across Europe. She betrayed her nation in the most grotesque way. She is, in every meaning of the word, a traitor. And yet what do the chattering classes give her? The benefit of the doubt. The promise of redemption. She’s a victim, they say, who was groomed and brainwashed, and now we must bring her home and remake her.
There’s no doubt that the two women have expressed opinions which are ferocious and frightening. They could be dangerous. If they return, even in jail, they might proselytise for ISIS and its violent vision of Islam.
Even now, while she is appealing to Britain to take her back, Shamima Begum expressed no remorse for aiding ISIS and said she was “OK” with beheadings. In 2015, tweeting as Umm Jihad, “mother of jihad”, Hoda Muthana sent bloodthirsty messages like: “Americans wake up! You have much to do while you live under our greatest enemy, enough of your sleeping! Go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood, or rent a big truck and drive all over them.”
But let’s think this through.
First of all, citizenship is a fundamental right. In theory, at least, every person on the planet is protected by a nation-state. Whether or not citizenship means anything to a Somali herdsman or a Brazilian tribesman, governments are responsible for their people. Without citizenship, all other human rights, even the more fundamental one, like the “the right to life, liberty and security of person” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are unenforceable.
And in fact, Article 15 of the UDHR guarantees that “Everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”.
Both the US and the UK are using fine print for denying that these native-born women are citizens. It’s ironic that the British home secretary, whose parents were born in Pakistan, is trying to offload Shamima Begum onto Bangladesh, a country she has never set foot in. What if it turns out that Mr Javid’s parents were illegal migrants? Will he be sent back? Perhaps some pettifogging lawyer could find a way to deport Donald Trump back to Germany, where his grandfather was born. These are just grandstanding excuses for refusing to take responsibility for dangerous and unpopular citizens.
These women are deeply unpopular because they hold beliefs which threaten our democracies and our security. They may have committed heinous crimes. And youthful naiveté is no excuse for pledging loyalty to the Islamic State. A ten-year-old understands that people who incinerate people in cages and slit the throats of infidels are evil people and they must be shunned.
All sorts of people in democracies proselytise dangerous and unpopular beliefs — white supremacists, paedophiles, anti-Semites – but we don’t strip them of citizenship. Instead, laws set limits on what they can say and do to advance their cause. If they overstep them, they are jailed.
But the most fundamental point is that society has to accept responsibility for even the worst of its citizens. “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest members” is an unattributed quote often cited by politicians. Moral cripples like Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum, with their despicable and dangerous beliefs, or even because of them, are just as much in need of help as the elderly and the handicapped.
Let them return to the land of their birth where they can be judged, punished and hopefully rehabilitated. But denying them citizenship fails in the most fundamental duty of a government.
There’s a short story written in the middle of the Civil War, “The Man Without a Country”, by Edward Everett Hale. A century later it was still required reading for American school children. It tells the fictional story of a young Naval lieutenant found guilty of treason in 1807 along with Aaron Burr. When he tells the judge, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”, his request is granted. To the end of his days, he lives on Navy ships where his native land is never mentioned. For him it is the ultimate torment. Only on his deathbed does a kindly officer tell him what has happened in the last 50 years. He dies with a smile on his face.
In short, to be without a country is punishment worse than death. Nothing these women have done deserves this.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.