The decision of the Home Office to revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, while using the justification that her Bangladeshi heritage provides her with an alternative means to nationality, raises serious concerns for those of dual or migrant heritage in Britain.
When working on my novel In Our Mad and Furious City I had the opportunity to research historic examples of how extremist sentiment manifests itself in Britain. One of the parallels I tried to explore was the pathological similarity between those involved in the sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and those who join extremist groups like daesh.
What is interesting to note, especially in light of Shamima Begum’s case, is the difference in the position taken up by British governments in regard to dealing with former combatants and perpetrators of violence.
During the 1980s and 90s, former volunteers of the (Provisional) IRA (those who were regarded as terrorists but had laid down arms) were encouraged by the government and police at the time to re-enter communities in order to use their influence to de-escalate tensions in areas where Loyalists and Republican communities lived. These community networks still play a crucial role in preventing sectarian violence from escalating again.
Whether the likes of Shamima Begum or any other returning daesh fighters seeking to return would ever be capable of a similar role-change, is difficult to say. But these historic efforts stands in stark contrast to the posturing of this current government. They opt instead to rescind this broader responsibility in favour of racist dog-whistling - which is what I believe this decision to be based on.
Not only is it incumbent upon the Home Office to reverse the decision to revoke citizenship from Shamima Begum, it is also important that the rest of us are clear eyed about the signalling that takes place whenever the Home Office – in this case Home Secretary Sajid Javid in using his special privilege - dilutes, muddies or otherwise mitigates the nature of citizenship in this country.
Whether it be the ongoing betrayal of the Windrush generation, the treatment of migrants at British detention centres such as Yarls Wood, or the status of European migrants post-Brexit, there is a need to hold this government’s record on human rights to account, and specifically, when it comes to how decisions are made in regard to who does and does not belong.
A precarious, and multi-tiered system of citizenship is no citizenship at all. And clearly, coupled with this government’s anti-migrant rhetoric, the precedent set this week is the latest in a series of efforts in not only appeasing racist anti-migrant sentiment in Britain, but also demonstrates how generations of migrants and their children may expect to be treated in Britain under this Prime Minister’s 'hostile environment' pledge.
It is beside the point as to whether Shamima Begum herself appears ‘sympathetic’ in her various interviews. Women of colour have a long history of not being deemed worthy of victimhood in these kinds of debates. But it is difficult to see how either herself or her baby could pose a threat to our national security.
It is telling also, that those who are against 16 and 17 year olds getting the right to vote in this country are also now arguing that Shamima Begum made her decision consciously. At the very least, the government has a responsibility toward the Begum family, whose daughter left for Syria without their consent. It is neither shrill, conciliatory or paying sympathy to terrorists to believe that citizenship should not be used as a political cudgel.
Like it or not, Shamima Begum is as British as the rest of us. It was here, in Britain, that she was radicalized. And it is here that she should face justice. The only way we can begin to understand the pathologies behind those who choose to follow ideologies of hate groups is to bring them home.
Perhaps it is too much to ask that debates around such an emotive story focus on individual rights and statutes. But political decisions must be. And while I am no expert in the legal ramifications of rendering a mother and child stateless, I am alarmed by this move. I see what is happening here, and I begin to fear what would happen if my own father fails to remember his passport the next time he is rushed to hospital.
Is my father British enough? Am I?
We need to assert our belonging as being grounded in law. Anything less and we abdicate our collective responsibilities as members of civil society. We also lessen the commitment we share to our own communities and as citizens ourselves. Clear lines must be drawn around what it means to be British in the first place.