Shamima Begum is something worse than a criminal

Shamima Begum is something worse than a criminal

Begum and the other Brits who joined ISIS are traitors and must be treated as such.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Politics UK World

To see how broken the cultural elite’s moral compass is, simply compare their response to the Covington schoolboys with what they’ve been saying about Shamima Begum since she was discovered in a refugee camp in Syria last week.

Their fury over the Covington boys was instant and unhinged. The boys did nothing wrong – unless you think it is a crime to sing sporty songs in response to mad verbal abuse from religious extremists, as the boys did when members of the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled epithets at them outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. And yet these boys were made into global hate figures, denounced as white supremacists, their likenesses reproduced everywhere as 21st-century demonic images that every good person had a duty to be horrified by.

In stark, alarming contrast, the same sections of the opinion-forming set that raged against those boys have treated Ms Begum with sympathy and charity. This despite the fact that she absolutely has done something wrong. Beyond wrong, in fact. She travelled thousands of miles to join a neo-fascistic cult that massacres Kurds and Iraqis and Syrians, beheads dissenters, executes homosexuals, treats women as imbeciles, and inspires its Western backers to carry out barbaric attacks on men, women and children across Europe. She betrayed her nation in the most grotesque way. She is, in every meaning of the word, a traitor. And yet what do the chattering classes give her? The benefit of the doubt. The promise of redemption. She’s a victim, they say, who was groomed and brainwashed, and now we must bring her home and remake her.

Teenage boys were denounced for nothing. Begum is talked about sympathetically despite having made herself the willing supplicant of a movement that massacred Britain’s own children, in Manchester, alongside revellers and shoppers everywhere from London Bridge to Berlin to Nice. This chasm-sized disparity between the animus heaped upon those innocent boys and the excuse-making afforded to Ms Begum demands an explanation. For no normal or good society condemns the innocent while extending the hand of understanding to those who support a barbaric foreign army that dreams of destroying said society. So what has happened?

Partly it is down to the politics of identity. In the binary moral universe of identitarianism, where everyone is brutally categorised as either ‘privileged’ or ‘oppressed’, young white males can do no right while young non-white females can do no wrong. Or at least they cannot be held fully responsible for their wrongdoing. This shows the extent to which the politicisation of identity actually rehabilitates old prejudices about non-whites and women. The things being said about Begum – that she was groomed, that she’s a victim – would never be said about a 15-year-old white boy who ran off to join a neo-Nazi movement that executed thousands of people for the crime of being non-white. There is an implicit racism and sexism in the idea that Begum has less moral culpability than a white male of her age would have.

But more broadly, the confused moral debate over Begum’s fate, which has now morphed into a debate about what should become of the hundreds of other Brits who ran away to join ISIS, speaks to the institutional cowardice of the 21st-century West and particularly of the British state and Britain’s elites. For it now seems that they cannot even call a traitor a traitor and are completely at a loss as to how to deal with those people who betray their nation, partake in the massacre of their fellow citizens, and throw their lot in with a foreign army that sought to wage ruthless war on British life and allies and values.

What a peculiar era we live in. We rain terrible judgement upon those who commit minor so-called transgressions, whether by misgendering a trans person or being white and wearing a MAGA cap. Yet when it comes to serious wrongdoing – whether that’s rampant knife crime in London or the massacre of cartoonists in Paris or British-born Muslims joining a foreign religious cult that slits the throats of British citizens in the Syrian desert – our judgement dries up. We consciously withhold moral judgement, in fact, for fear of giving offence or stirring up a largely imaginary mob.

These might seem like contradictory trends, this furious judgementalism against mis-speakers on one side, and the gutless non-judgementalism in relation to terrorism or traitorism on the other. But in fact they speak to the same phenomenon: moral relativism. Our societies have seriously lost their moral bearings, their very sense of themselves as nations with values and ideals and rules. And it is this that fuels both the new rash judgementalism and the tyranny of non-judgementalism. The former is an attempt to set boundaries, forcefully and arbitrarily, in an era when moral boundaries seem so elusive and unclear, as confirmed by the latter phenomenon: the rise of non-judgementalism on such matters as Islamist extremism and barbaric traitorism. That the new witch-hunting climate against minor transgressors exists at precisely the time when moral relativism is spreading makes perfect sense – the former is a desperate (and forlorn) effort to address the latter. Shallow moralistic fury is the bastard offspring of the disorientating cult of moral relativism.

The British discussion about returning ISIS fighters and supporters absolutely speaks to the disarray and pusillanimity of the political class. So far the discussion has hinged on the question of whether Begum and others should be allowed to return to Britain. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, says he won’t hesitate to block their re-entry, while his army of critics say this would set a dangerous precedent vis-à-vis British citizenship. It would be wrong, they insist, for the British state to have the power to cancel a Brit’s citizenship and condemn them to statelessness. Instead, British ISIS backers must apparently be allowed to return so that they can be tried, punished, rehabilitated, redeemed, etc.

The key thing to grasp here is that while this looks like a divided debate, in fact both sides are motored by a similar instinct – a reluctance to confront the depth and nature of the offences committed by those Britons who joined a foreign army committed to the destruction of the British way of life and of British citizens’ lives. Lacking the moral resources to address this incredibly serious situation, both sides instead speak in the language of legalism or of the child-protection industry or of therapy. Grooming, vulnerability, rehabilitation. Confronted by large-scale traitorism, by the betrayal of the nation by significant numbers of people who chose life in a murderous anti-Western caliphate over commitment to British society, our elites have nothing meaningful to say. They lack the moral seriousness to grapple with this phenomenon. And so they fall back on the familiar language of victimhood or ordinary criminal law.

But here’s the thing: we are not talking about burglars or drug-dealers here. We are talking about traitors, quislings, modern-day Lord Haw-Haws. This is an entirely different order of offence to a crime against property or against a person. This is a crime against all persons, against all Britons. Rehabilitation has nothing to say here. Redemption is not the aim. A society that feels sympathy for its own traitors is a society that has truly lost the moral plot. At best, it means people will get off more lightly than they ought to; at worst, it will act as an invitation to other aspiring traitors and terrorists in the UK who will view this moral cowardice as a green light to their own acts of betrayal.

The mistake some of the government’s critics are making is to view the threat of cancelling British ISIS supporters’ citizenship as punitive. Perhaps it is punitive but, far more importantly, it is driven by institutional cowardice, by an unwillingness, or inability, to deal with the hundreds of British traitors who will be left in Syria following the imminent end of the ISIS regime. It is an attempt to put them out of sight and out of mind. Too many people are focused on the question of whether these people should be allowed to return home. The bigger question is: returned home for what? A normal trial? Redemption? Pity? That would be a terrible mistake. It would compound the social and communal crisis revealed by so many Britons defecting to a barbaric foreign army by indicating that Britain doesn’t even know how to deal with these people when their acts of national betrayal become clear.

As I said on spiked last week, we shouldn’t block these people’s re-entry if they manage to make their way to Britain. But perhaps we need to go further now. Perhaps we should devote serious resources to going to fetch these people, not out of some sense of obligation to them as citizens of the UK, but as a demonstration of our deep commitment to tackling the crime of traitorism. Bring them back? Okay. And then let us do what all nations ought to do when confronted by large-scale traitorism: subject these people to military trials and treat them as the very thing they travelled thousands of miles to become – enemy combatants.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.