In the debate over the erstwhile ‘ISIS bride’ Shamima Begum, it seems there are only two permissible opinions. The ‘hang-em-flog-em’ right wing castigate the former teenage mother, back the British government’s controversial decision to strip her of her British citizenship, and argue she deserves nothing more than to be left ‘in the desert’ to rot. The liberal left, meanwhile, takes the rather startling position there is nothing particularly wrong with travelling to join ISIS if you happen to be under the age of 18, that the focus should be on the trauma Begum herself has experienced, and on getting her safely back to Britain.
In fact, these viewpoints are two sides of the same coin. Depending on who you ask, the Kurdish-led administration in North and East Syria are either Begum’s saviours, or her captors. But when we speak about Begum in these terms their suffering, their demands, and their proposed solution are entirely wiped away.
The latest revelation is that a Canadian information asset, sensationally described as a ‘spy’, was involved in smuggling Begum from Istanbul. The truth is that there is nothing ‘extraordinary’ about this story at all. Double-agents selling information for a profit flock around the Syrian conflict like flies to a wound. The route Begum took – flying to Istanbul, taking a taxi to the border, and being driven into Syria – was self-evidently wide open to all-comers. It is extraordinary only in how shockingly easy it was for tens of thousands of foreign ISIS militants to gain access to Syria while Turkey turned a blind eye.
Begum has a knack for making headlines, partially self-inflicted through her own evident callousness in early interviews, partially whipped up by British press in an orientalist fervour – witness the rather self-congratulatory Times article on ‘Finding Shamima Begum’ which strove to make turning up at an office, asking to see Begum, and sitting there till she was produced, sound like a Pulitzer-worthy act of undercover journalism. She is cruel enough to horrify, young and naive enough to spark sympathy.
There are other young women I would rather speak about. What about Shilan Özçelik, jailed at 18 for trying to travel from London to the Middle East to join the very democratic, female-led fighting force which inspired the resistance against ISIS and save the Yazidis? No Western security agencies seemed interested in helping her across the border, even while hundreds of young Britons flocked merrily through Istanbul airport to join the caliphate. What about the thousands of young Kurdish, Arab and other women who made the decision to join the fight against ISIS as part of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)? They certainly did not seem devoid of any personal agency.
Or what about the young woman I will call Daristan, who, aged just 20, was in overall charge of the camp where Begum is now living in Syria? I visited Roj Camp multiple times, and Daristan’s empathy for the thousands of ISIS-linked women and children living there was apparent. Two of Daristan’s siblings were killed in the war against ISIS, but this only made her more determined to do her job well and win back those women she could. Some still hated her. Some called her ‘mother’. None tried to kill her. It was a start.
The decision to strip Begum of her nationality is an appalling dereliction of duty by the British government – towards Begum herself, but also because it opens the way to further abuse of fundamental rights by the British security state, including against the Kurds. It is no way to deal with the complex issue of a teenager convinced by her elders to becoming a willing supporter of and participant in acts of genocidal cruelty. But this does not mean we must forget the real victims of Begum’s actions.
The implication of the latest headlines is that Begum was what her lawyer is calling a ‘victim of trafficking’, manipulated by forces beyond her control. In reality, paying a smuggler is the only way into the war-torn country. The real scandal here is not how Begum got into Syria, but why she is still there. The real scandal is that the ‘desert’ where Begum has been left is in fact a fragile, burgeoning democracy, home to millions of peace-loving civilians, teetering on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe.
The real scandal is that though conditions in Roj camp are more than tolerable – Begum’s tent has 24-hour electricity, a luxury most locals would die for – Daristan and her colleagues are under-resourced, under-funded, and unable to do more than the bare minimum. The situation in Hol Camp is, of course, far worse again. Rehabilitation and education efforts in north and east Syria’s prisons, camps and ISIS-leaning regions are admirable, but sparse and devoid of funds.
The West needs to bring back its own citizens, and back the local administration in north and east Syria in its efforts to rebuild local society and prevent a further ISIS resurgence. If it is unpalatable for the British state and the right wing to listen to Begum’s pleas for help, fair enough.
But they should listen to the military force which defeated ISIS as their partners, and the civilian administration struggling even to provide the basic needs for thousands upon thousands of foreign ISIS members, let alone build a future for them free from sectarian, genocidal, misogynistic hate.