Ever since Shamima Begum was found in a Kurdish-run camp in northern Syria, the debate on whether she (and others) should be left overseas or brought back to face charges in the UK has raged unabated. The Sunday Times recently reported that police and UK intelligence agencies are looking to bring a number of charges against these so-called “Jihadi brides” when some of them attempt to return to the UK.
If they expect to be greeted as victims of radicalisation rather than criminals, they may be unpleasantly surprised. Public sentiment has turned significantly against these individuals, and the space for forgiveness has considerably narrowed.
Many communities in the UK have suffered from the encroachment of extremism and terrorism; many have been unable to access public services and now rely on foodbanks just to keep going. As far as these millions of people are concerned, they’ve been left behind both socially and financially even after following the rules of our country.
They will have little sympathy for complaints to the same effect from the Shamima Begums of this world, and many of them would frankly be happy to leave her to her fate in Syria.
Put another way, the United Kingdom of today is not the United Kingdom that Shamima Begum left behind in 2015. Our society has been roiled for years by rifts over immigration and the effects of grinding austerity; successive governments have proved unable to steer the country through these storms, instead landing us in our Brexit-or-no-Brexit holding pattern.
The atmosphere is fractious and charged, and the sense of disengagement and detachment between people palpable. The divides between north and south are starker than ever, and the future looks set to bring more financial uncertainty and chaos. To top it all off, far-right populists are on the march as never before, thriving in the anarchic wilderness of social media.
So if those who turned their backs on our country really think that they won’t be called to answer for their actions, they certainly will. Charges will be brought where there is sufficient evidence to do so. They will also be subject to mandatory involvement in the Home Office’s Desistance and Disengagement Programme, which seeks to rehabilitate returnees.
Some may well be rehabilitated, but given the level of public anger towards them, they will certainly need new identities. Their lives in the UK will never be the same again.
Granted, there were some who were drawn out to Iraq and Syria by promises of a utopian existence – a life in an Islamic paradise with a house and a husband or wife. For them, Bethnal Green was too boring, too un-Islamic, a place where they could not feel at home. But we all know that the problem was not their surroundings, or Islam. The problem lay with them and their sense of who and what they were.
But there were others who thought very differently – people so disengaged with our country and communities that they would have been willing to kill Western soldiers or civilians. This group of individuals drank the Islamic State Kool-Aid and bought into the group’s banal nihilism. Some of them may well have returned to the UK, even claiming that they committed no violent acts and with authorities unable to prove that they were involved in death, mayhem and murder
This is why we need to revise and update the Treason Act of 1351 to take into account such situations in a globalised electronic age. Tom Tugendhat MP and Labour’s Khalid Mahmood MP recently proposed such a revision, but the Law Commission rejected their proposal on the basis that there are other pieces of legislation that can be used against perpetrators.
These two members of parliament understand the threat posed by returnees. Tugendhat has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and seen close at hand what extremist ideology does to people and communities. Mahmood, meanwhile, has been challenging Islamist extremist rhetoric and discourse since 7/7 and knows full well the dangerous cancer of extremism that took root in some parts of the country.
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One of the downsides of the digital revolution has been that state boundaries and social norms have come under severe pressure. Pure individualism has taken hold on a scale we have never seen before, while the concept of the “nation state” has come under severe pressure. It is in the resultant vacuum that extremists can manipulate the online space and vulnerable minds. The Islamic State did this excruciatingly well by calling on young British Muslims to turn against their country and pledge allegiance to a foreign entity in the middle of a region few of them knew anything about.
Therefore, if we are to defend our country from the multiple threats that it faces, we must rally to defend the concept of the nation state and re-enforce allegiances to our country. This is why we must revise the Treason Act and send out a firm message that those who turn against our country, will face charges of treachery. Anything less than that and the atrophy that's eating away at our country will simply continue.