Under the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, Shamima Begum Was Never Presumed Innocent

Over the past few days, 19-year-old Shamima Begum – one of the ‘Bethnal Green trio’ who left the UK to join the Islamic State (IS) in 2015 – has been very much in the media spotlight. Since the publication of her interview with The Times journalist Anthony Loyd last week, public debate has raged about whether or not Begum should be allowed to return to Britain.

On Tuesday home secretary Sajid Javid announced Begum’s British citizenship had been revoked – a decision that, as many have pointed out, contravenes international law. This choice to render her stateless not only shows how tenuous ‘belonging’ is for BAME British citizens, but is yet another example of how the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda – the key counter-terrorism apparatus in the UK – is grounded in the preemptive denial of innocence and belonging.

To consider the case of Shamima Begum – or indeed the similar cases of Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana or Sharmeena Begum – outside of the context of the war on terror is to miss the ways in which Muslims have been cast as inherently suspicious, not only in mainstream narratives about terrorism over the past two decades, but also through myriad policies, programmes, and mechanisms of policing. The presumption of innocence is not afforded to those caught up in an ever-widening web of surveillance that the domestic war on terror is not only reliant on, but produces.

The framing of Begum and the other three girls as ‘Jihadi’ or ‘IS’ brides – a moniker that is almost always used when discussing them – puts them at a remove from their adolescence. It relies on the oriental trope of the child bride to displace Begum and her friends from the realm of contemporary political realities – namely, those which are bound up in decades of Western intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia. We need to ask not just what the trope of the ‘jihadi bride’ is meant to conjure, but what the consequences of the repetition of this narrative are.

The portrayal of Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani women in peril in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2001 and 2003 invasions acted as an alibi – as one of the primary mechanisms of justifying US and British military intervention. As Mahmood Mamdani argues in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Central Asia served as a key theatre for war games between the US (and its allies) and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The conditions for the globalisation of terrorism were therefore forged through this period of Anglo-American intervention into Afghanistan during the height of the Cold War. The ideology these images of vulnerable women undergird is one in which the war on terror was necessary not only to avenge those who died during the 9/11 attacks, but to ‘save’ Muslim women as well.

These images were a mirage, both a means of obscuring the imperial aims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also a way of reinforcing deeply Islamophobic ideas about Muslim women. While figures such as Malala Yousafzai and countless other victims of the Taliban’s violence have been mobilised to support interventions against ‘extremism,’ the images and narratives about Begum, though seemingly different, work in a markedly similar fashion. Depictions of political Islam as pre-modern and barbaric obscure the fact it was borne out of modern, political alliances forged during the Cold War.

Representations of Muslim women, as either vulnerable or dangerous, reinforce the idea that the violence of IS, and similar groups, is a product of culture rather than politics. These images also work in tandem with the ongoing narratives about IS, to suggest that the primary harm they have caused is in Europe and the US rather than in Syria or Iraq. Ultimately, these narratives reinvest us in a notion of security which focuses on risk as a result of unassimilable difference rather than as a product of the insecurities caused by British and American imperialism in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past four decades.

Racialised subjects are often precluded from experiencing the innocence of childhood in an uncomplicated way, and those targeted for surveillance by security services are no exception. The designation of suspicion is not based on ones practices or beliefs, but ones proximity to normative (read: white) Britishness.

The account of Abase Hussen, Amira Abase’s father, unsettles the essentialised notions of inherent susceptibility to monstrosity that Prevent traffics in. He recounts that his daughter was afraid to come into the house when no one was home, or to venture into the upper floor of their apartment without the lights on. This serves as a stark contrast to the realities in Syria over the past eight years, but also suggests a certain guilelessness. We are granted a view, for a moment, into a fact often obscured by the ongoing reporting on the case. That Amira, and Shamima, and Kadiza, were children when they hatched a plan to run away to join IS. This is not to excuse what they have done, or to deny them agency, but to situate their actions in a context – that of their childhood – that has been disavowed through their vilification.

The foreclosure of innocence was thus not only an effect of the girls’ decision to join IS, but is an inherent part of life under Prevent. Counter-terrorism has been a dually domestic and international project. We should ask how the conditions of non-belonging – the hostile environment, the charter deportations, the Windrush scandal, the embedded immigration officers, the racist rhetoric about a migrant crisis – have not only ended lives, but also constrained them.

Public surveillance initiatives such at British Transport Police’s ‘See It, Say It, Sorted’ campaign rely on the training of a certain understanding of the kinds of bodies that should be treated as suspicious. We are trained not only to look for the ‘out-of-place,’ and in doing so, to continuously engage in the process of creating it.  The decision to repeal Begum’s citizenship is contiguous with this, as is the continued expansion of counter-terrorism through legislative measures. The range of actions that constitute a terror offence have expanded significantly with the passage of the new terror laws which received royal assent last week.

Prevent is not about incorporation, but exclusion. It is about the designation of suspicious citizens, who are never fully in, who the state can easily render fully out. The case of Shamima Begum must be read in this context. She has been rendered monstrous in such a way that makes the role of Britain indiscernible. The binary between righteous victims and barbaric monsters is a ruse, but it’s a highly productive one. It has been central to obscuring the entwinement of counter-terrorism, as it has been administered at home and abroad, but also Britain and America’s deep imbrication in the history of producing the conditions of political terror themselves. Shamima Begum may be guilty of travelling to Syria, and of other crimes, yet unknown. But Britain and the US are complicit in the context that made her crimes possible.

Published 24th February 2019

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