A discussion about treason and the death penalty arose on Wednesday,...
The Home Secretary has suggested the ancient law of treason could be rewritten to make it easier to prosecute returning jihadist fighters such as Shamima Begum. Christian Concern's head of public policy Tim Dieppe explains why he believes the Bible supports this course of action
The case of Shamima Begum has captivated the nation. Shamima left the UK in 2015 when she was just 15 years old to join ISIS and become a so-called "jihadi bride". Now four years later, having just given birth to a baby son, she has appealed to come back to the UK. In response to this, a petition calling on the government to ban all ISIS members from returning to the UK has attracted over 500,000 signatures and is now the most popular petition to the government.
Sadly, Shamima appears unrepentant for her actions, a point that should be taken into account given the emphasis in Christianity on repentance. She has said that she doesn’t regret going to live under Islamic State and that seeing a severed head in a bin didn’t faze her.
She also defended the Manchester bombing of the Ariana Grande concert as a tit-for-tat retaliation for air strikes in Syria, and she named her baby Jarrah, which means “able fighter” or “one who wounds”.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has taken the controversial step of stripping her of her British citizenship. But he has also talked about updating the 650-year-old law of treason which has lapsed into disuse. I believe this is a sensible response with biblical backing that Christians should support.
At present around 360 people have returned from Islamic State to the UK, but only 40 have been convicted of any offence. Our current laws are too restrictive to prosecute people who have committed an obvious offence against the state. Yet biblically, the state should punish wrongdoing with one of the goals being the protection of a peaceful society and another to execute justice (Romans 13:1-4; 1 Timothy 2:2)
A betrayal of trust
Any society requires a level of trust and allegiance in order to hold together. Helping others to attack your society is one of the most serious offences you can commit against your own people. It was only in 1998 that the death penalty for treason was abolished in the UK under the Crime and Disorder Act.
A proposed new treason law would cover British citizens who have joined ISIS or travelled to fight for them by making it an offence to aid a state or organisation that is attacking or preparing to attack the UK. The freedom to criticise one’s own country and armed forces would not be criminalised. A person must have actually aided an organisation that is attacking or preparing to attack the UK to commit the offence. I think its clear that Shamima Begum would be guilty of this.
Treason is treated as a serious offence in the Bible. The nation of Israel functioned under Moses and the Judges as a theocracy. In a theocracy, worship of other gods constitutes a form of treason or betrayal against the ruling authority of the nation. Deuteronomy 13 deals with this kind of offence and makes clear that a person who encouraged worship of other gods was to be put to death – even if it was your friend or relative – and in serious cases, a whole city was to be destroyed. At the end of Joshua 1, the people say to Joshua: “Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death.” To be clear, I am not arguing for the death penalty today, but I am arguing that treason should be treated as a very serious offence carrying a life sentence.
I am not arguing for the death penalty today, but I am arguing that treason should be treated as a very serious offence carrying a life sentence
Interestingly, Shamima herself believes in the death penalty for treason since she adheres to Islamic law which teaches that apostasy is treason and an offence that carries the death penalty.
The reason for treason
The act of treason is fundamentally an act of betrayal against the nation which has always been recognised as deeply wrong. The strength of feeling in the nation against allowing her to return shows that people sense the wrong that she has done.
Our current laws fail to recognise the wrongfulness of such betrayal which means that the government is attempting to export justice for those who have aided our enemies to other countries. A workable treason law would serve to make clear to society that betrayal is wrong and to discourage such betrayal by our citizens.
Shamima would therefore be able to return to this country with the clear expectation that she would face charges for the serious offence of treason. If found guilty then the penalty would provide retribution and offer the chance of rehabilitation if she later demonstrates repentance.
Tim Dieppe is head of public policy at Christian Concern
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 Sean Doherty
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