Posted on May 15, 2019 at 10:34 AM
Written by Steve Clarke,Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities and Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford,
& School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Sturt University
Shamima Begum, who left the UK in 2015 at age 15, to join the Islamic State, has been the subject of consistent media attention since she was discovered in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria, in February this year. Soon after being discovered in the refugee camp Begum was controversially stripped of her UK citizenship by Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Citizenship can be removed by the Home Secretary if doing so is deemed to be ‘conducive to the public good’. While it is illegal to render a person stateless, the Home Secretary is entitled to deprive UK citizens of their citizenship if they are also citizens of another country, or if they are eligible for citizenship in another country. Begum may be eligible for citizenship of Bangladesh, given that she has Bangladeshi ancestry, and there is a legal argument that she already is a citizen of Bangladesh.
The Home Secretary’s decision has been much discussed in the media. Some commentators have argued that Begum’s interests should not be trumped by considerations of the public good. Others have questioned the legality of the decision. Still others have complained about the secretive nature of the decision-making process that led the Home Office to recommend to the Home Secretary that Begum be deprived of her citizenship. Here I will be concerned with a different issue. I will set aside considerations of Begum’s interests and I will set aside legal and procedural considerations. I will focus on the question of whether or not it is actually conducive to the public good in the UK to deprive Begum of her citizenship. Like most people, I do not have access to all of the information that the Home Secretary may have been apprised of, regarding Begum’s activities while she was living in the Islamic State, which would have informed his decision. So what I will have to say is necessarily speculative.
Begum has claimed to have been a housewife for the four years during which she was living in the Islamic State. However, there have been allegations that she was a member of the Hisba, the Islamic State’s morality police, in charge of enforcing strict Islamic dress codes and punishing practices deemed un-Islamic. There have also been claims that she stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, preventing them from removing the vests without detonating them. These allegations do seem relevant to the decision to revoke her citizenship. If true, they suggest that she is, or has been, an enthusiastic supporter of the Islamic State and an abetter of terrorism. Also relevant are some ill-considered media comments she made earlier this year. In one interview she suggested that the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017, which resulted in 23 civilian deaths, was justifiable as a form of retaliation for coalition bombing in the Islamic State. In the same interview she also offered an apparent justification for the killing, enslavement and rape of Yazidi women in the Islamic State.These comments do not strike me as actual instances of Begum encouraging terrorism, however they suggest that she remains sympathetic to terrorists and her sympathies for terrorists might lead her to encourage terrorism in the future.
Why might it be conducive to the public good to strip Shamima Begum of her UK citizenship? I take it that only very serious considerations are sufficient to justify an action as significant as revocation of citizenship. Her lack of empathy for others and her confused reasoning about the justifiability of some terrorist acts, while regrettable, do not constitute anything nearly significant enough to justify the revocation of citizenship. What might constitute a sufficient reason to revoke her citizenship would be if there was a realistic chance that her return to the UK would threaten national security. If she was likely to conduct a terrorist act, or assist terrorists in conducting such an act, or encourage terrorism, upon return to the UK, then there might be prima facie reason to revoke her citizenship and so prevent her from returning to the UK. It may be that the Home Office has concluded that she is likely to do one or more of these things if she were to return to the UK, and so has revoked her citizenship in order to prevent her return.
On the basis of the information that is available in the public domain, it seems very hard to believe that Begum would have the opportunity to conduct a terrorist act, or to assist terrorists should she return to the UK. Given her new-found notoriety she would be vanishingly unlikely to have an opportunity to plan a terrorist act without this being uncovered. Nor is it at all likely that she would have the opportunity to assist terrorists. Any competent terrorist would steer well clear of a celebrity Islamic State returnee. The most realistic source of concern is that she might attempt to encourage terrorism were she to return to the UK. However, this does not strike me as a good reason to prevent her return. If she were of a mind to attempt to encourage terrorism she could do so from any place where she had access to the internet. So, it is hard to see how allowing Begum to return to the UK would enhance her ability to encourage terrorism. On the contrary, a return to the UK would diminish her ability to encourage terrorism, because she would be under close scrutiny in the UK, and would be liable to be prosecuted were she to attempt to encourage terrorism, and could be jailed for up to seven years. While she remains in a relatively lawless part of Syria she is much more likely to be able to encourage terrorism and go unpunished.
The Home Secretary does not have to be satisfied that someone poses a threat to national security to revoke their citizenship. Citizenship can also be revoked if someone is deemed to have breached their duty of loyalty to the UK ‘so fundamentally that it cannot be reasonable to expect the state to continue to provide him with the protection that flows from citizenship’. While Begum’s possible participation in the Islamic State’s morality police and possible provision of support for Islamic State suicide bombers are lamentable, it is hard to construe them as constituting a fundamental breach of loyalty to the UK. All the information that has so far come to light suggests that at most Begum was a minor contributor to the functioning of the Islamic State. It is very hard to see how her minor contributions to the Islamic State could constitute a fundamental breach of her duty of loyalty to the UK.
It could be that Sajid Javid revoked Begum’s citizenship because he decided, inter alia, that it is in the public interest to send a message to would-be terrorists and abetters and encouragers of terrorism: if you attempt to commit terrorist acts, assist terrorist acts, or encourage terrorism then you will be liable to have your citizenship revoked too. If he has reasoned this way then, I think, he has made a mistake. It’s far from clear that many terrorists and supporters of terrorism who are eligible for, or hold, dual citizenship, will be deterred by the threat of losing citizenship in a country whose values and institutions they already reject, especially if they are able to continue to commit, abet or encourage terrorist acts elsewhere, after they have had their UK citizenship revoked. A far better deterrent is to prosecute terrorists and their supporters, and jail those found to have broken the law.
I’ve examined potential reasons for revoking Shamima Begum’s citizenship and suggested that none of them seem particularly decisive. It might be that there are good reasons for revoking the citizenship of some supporters of the Islamic State, but it doesn’t appear that any of them apply to Begum. I want to end by mentioning two important reasons for not revoking Begum’s citizenship. The first reason is that the revocation of her citizenship contributes to a growing sense of ‘citizenship insecurity’ in the UK. There are many UK citizens living in the UK, who either hold dual citizenship, or are eligible for dual citizenship. As things stand they are all liable to have their citizenship revoked and to be evicted from their homes in the UK and forcibly relocated to other counties, as a result of a secretive deliberation process conducted in the Home Office. This ongoing state of citizenship insecurity is distressing to all of these UK citizens.
The second reason for not revoking Begum’s citizenship is that doing so harms the international reputation of the UK. It makes the UK look like an irresponsible country that seeks to impose problems created in the UK on others. The Bangladeshi Foreign Minister has made it very clear that Bangladesh has no desire to accept Begum as either a citizen or a resident; and the UK’s attempt to impose the problem of having to deal with her on Bangladesh has been described as an instance of ‘human fly tipping’ by Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer for Begum’s family. There is much justice in Akunjee’s accusation. Begum’s only connection to Bangladesh is that her parents happen to have been born there. Bangladesh bears no responsibility for Shamima Begum’s behaviour, whereas the UK does. Like it or not, the UK allowed the conditions to arise in which Shamima Begum and many other UK citizens decided to go and join the Islamic State. The UK should take responsibility for the international problems it has contributed to, and should not seek to palm this responsibility off on other counties.