Peter Brookes' powerful cartoon in The Times depicting Shamima Begum is matched by an excellent opinion column by Janice Turner who argues that this young Islamist does not deserve our sympathy or to be treated as a victim.
Shamima doesn’t look like anyone’s victim
By Janice Turner - The Times
Young women can be just as devout, bloodthirsty and fanatical as young men and it’s patronising to think otherwise
That Shamima Begum shows no remorse after her four years with Isis gazing at severed heads suggests she has Stockholm syndrome, her family say. The father of another Bethnal Green schoolgirl believes she was “radicalised and brainwashed”. Labour’s Harriet Harman tweets that the girls were “used for sex”. Others speculate about rape or PTSD. No one, it seems, takes Shamima’s word that her life in the Islamic State was largely “the one I wanted”.
Why not? Must a young woman, especially a brown, Muslim one, always be deemed a limp, submissive victim? Here was a resourceful, clever, much-loved girl who, along with friends, accrued funds, bought flights and suitable clothes, created alibis and secretly executed an elaborate plan. Would Shamima be discussed in such passive terms if she were a male fighter or if she’d joined not the Islamic State but, inspired by yesterday’s school strike against climate change, an international eco mission?
Young people have long been idealists, the truest of believers, blinkered black-and-white thinkers, prepared to sacrifice most for a cause. Teenagers lied about their age to be conscripted into both world wars, ran off to join the International Brigades, to fight for civil rights movements or independence struggles. Shamima Begum was not a child abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army or a Rotherham girl in care lured into the sex trade. Why can we not believe that, boarding the plane to Syria, she was passionate but clear-eyed?
The term “jihadi bride” doesn’t help, suggesting air-headed, hearts-on-pencil-cases romantic fantasies. And, sure, those researching the phenomenon of western Muslim women travelling to Syria have noted the powerful force of female desire. A virgin from a conservative family schooled in modesty, forbidden to meet boys, or even expecting an arranged marriage, could escape moral scrutiny and choose her beloved without parental veto. A brave, exciting, tooled-up bad boy at that. Moreover sex could not be wrong if it was in the cause of the caliphate, for Allah.
Yet these young women were also motivated by the same impulses as men. For excitement and adventure: on social media British girls, barely allowed beyond school and home, describe the adrenaline “rush” of crossing the Turkish border. For comradeship: recruited by other women, they enjoyed the solidarity in female-only houses, eating Nutella, playing with kittens, posting selfies with their “sisters”. For spiritual satisfaction: they longed for a society governed by “pure” Islamic principles, a bigger purpose in life than exams and chores and waiting for the weekend. Above all, like those building kibbutzim or hippy communes, they would be creating a utopian community.
Dr Katherine Brown, of King’s College London, an expert on British Muslim politics and gender, compares these girls to idealists who travelled to join the Soviet Union in the 1950s, believing that once in the perfect state they would become perfect people.
The notion that Shamima must be a victim derives from our disbelief that a girl protected by British laws would choose to live under Sharia repression. Yet the Bethnal Green girls knew that under Isis they would have kudos as wives of fighters, even more later as widows of martyrs. Mothers of “cubs of the caliphate”, they would be granted special privileges, housed and fed free.
She might not get to handle weapons — although in Isis’s dying days, who knows — but in Raqqa a girl, once insulted on British streets for wearing a hijab, could join the al-Khansaa brigade, enforcing petty dress codes on less pious women: punitive, state-sponsored Mean Girls. Like the wives of high-ranking Nazis who hung out at the Eagle’s Nest with Hitler kissing their hands, Isis wives may not have participated in atrocities but they must have relished their power.
The reasons Shamima and friends headed for Syria might not be irrational but calculated and cruel. Women can be as devout, bloodthirsty and politically fervent as men. Was Shamima unfazed by a severed head in a dustbin because she was mentally traumatised or because she saw that the brutal execution of fighters was necessary for the cause? (“I thought only what he would have done to a Muslim woman,” she reflected of one decapitated captive.)
Perhaps she spoke approvingly of the caliphate to Anthony Loyd not because she’s an emotionally subjugated Stockholm syndrome victim but because, military defeats and imperfect governance notwithstanding, she still believes in the Islamic State. If it had thrived would she, her Dutch jihadi husband and their unborn baby ever return?
When she or the other Bethnal Green girls find their way back to Britain, we must take their youth into account in assessing what they have done. And since we understand the power of social media to drive other teenage girls towards self-harm and suicide we cannot discount its role in fuelling jihad. But it seems patronising, even sexist and racist, to assume that Shamima is wholly a victim of circumstance, not an agent of her own destiny at all.
If a 15-year-old boy joined the Hitler Youth and by 19 was an enthusiastic junior SS officer, would you forgive him on the grounds he had been brainwashed? At what point does a young person stop being a gullible victim, malleable clay moulded by older minds and dangerous ideology, and become responsible for his or her deeds? A youth in Nazi Germany or indeed in Isis-controlled Syria had to submit to evil in order to survive. Shamima Begum travelled 3,000 miles to seek it out.