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The case of Shamima Begum - the 19 year old ISIS bride who has asked to return to the UK - has divided the nation. We asked ethics tutor and newly appointed principal of Trinity College Bristol Sean Doherty to share his view on the government's decision to revoke her British citizenship
The Home Secretary has deprived Shamima Begum of British citizenship and she consequently no longer has the right to come back to the UK. However, the debate about his decision is likely to rumble on for some time. She has a right to appeal it, and her family have said they are considering legal action.
Personally, I think that this is the wrong decision, both on moral and pragmatic grounds. It assumes that she has acted so wrongly that she has forfeited her rights as a British citizen, or perhaps that the Home Secretary has seen evidence that suggests she is such a potential threat to British security that we cannot afford to take the risk of letting her come back here.
Our government has a duty to protect those for whom it is responsible. I believe this includes Shamima Begum and her son. That includes taking our share of responsibility for the welfare of a woman who was radicalised and groomed in our country while still a minor, and it means taking our share of responsibility for holding her to account for her actions. We can’t do either of these things if we disown her.
I don’t support what Ms Begum has done, and some of the things she has recently been quoted as saying suggest that she is still deeply unaware of the gravity and wrongness of what she has done. And of course, biblically speaking, government has a duty to protect those for whom it is responsible, to punish wrongdoing and promote good moral conduct (Romans 13:3-4). But there are various ways the government could fulfil its duty in this case, and I’m not convinced this is the right one for the following reasons:
1. Shamima Begum was a minor when she left the UK to join ISIS
She was not even 16 years old, the legal age of sexual consent, although she was almost immediately "married" to an ISIS fighter. This doesn't mean she had no responsibility for what she did. But it does mean we can't hold her past actions to adult standards.
When someone under the age of 16 is induced into sexual activity we quite rightly regard this as grooming. What happened to her was something from which she needed protection rather than something for which we should blame her.
2. We must not wash our hands of responsibility
The Home Secretary’s decision has been taken on the assumption that it will not make Shamima Begum stateless, and that she has the right to live in Bangladesh. Even if this is the case (her family dispute it and Bangladesh has declined to recognise her as a citizen) and even if we think it is fair to expect her to become a citizen of a country to which she has never been, this still seems to me like washing our hands of responsibility.
If we genuinely think that Ms Begum is dangerous, it demonstrates a cavalier attitude to the people of Bangladesh to pass her over to them. Indeed, if she really is a danger to other people then we actually have an obligation to the wider world not to keep her at arm’s length, but to take responsibility for one of our own.
3. We have an obligation to confront wrongdoing and bring people to their senses
There are various ways in which we can respond to people whom we think might pose a danger to us, but disowning them entirely is one of the most severe. If Ms Begum has committed offences in this country, she should be investigated for that in this country and face justice accordingly.
If she has not committed any offenses, it is unfair to punish her without a transparent and proper investigation and legal process. And if she has committed an offense, then we are actually still failing her. Part of the purpose of criminal justice is to confront people with their wrongdoing and seek to bring them to their senses. If Ms Begum has committed a crime, we are letting her down if we do not try to do this, but simply cast her aside.
4. It risks making the problem of radicalisation even worse
Finally, a more pragmatic consideration. Depriving her of citizenship poses a risk. If we are seen as unfair and hostile that could actually increase radicalisation whereas demonstrating compassion towards her and offering her the opportunity to come to terms with and take responsibility for her actions could actually lead people away from taking similar steps themselves.
Revd Dr Sean Doherty is the newly appointed principal of Trinity College Bristol. He was formerly director of studies and assessment and tutor in ethics at St Mellitus College
Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of Christian opinion on our blog. Click here to read another viewpoint on the case, written by Tim Dieppe from Christian Concern
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