In liberal circles, a wave of empathy is building for the “foreign fighters” of ISIS who desire to return to their Western lives. The tip of this iceberg is the very publicized case of Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old former Londoner who flew from Gatwick four years ago with two other girls her age to join the Islamic State.
Now, having abandoned the remaining ISIS-controlled territory for a refugee camp run by Kurdish militias in Syria, she is petitioning to return to London and raise her third child. Her case has been all over the British news. For someone who wants her baby to be cared for by the National Health Service, she is curiously unrepentant about joining a terrorist organization. Thus far she’s been unable to summon even nominal disapproval of the Islamic State-orchestrated bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, which killed 22 people, much less the enslavement and mass rape of Yazidi women in ISIS-controlled areas. She’s even defended the most brutal ISIS practices as “compatible with Islam.” Nevertheless, a sort of British chattering class groundswell has arisen to welcome her, to treat her, as one columnist wryly put it, as “Britain’s long lost sweetheart.”
Treat her “with compassion,” urges the liberal Guardian. Naturally, her attorney describes her as a “victim.” Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn avers that Begum obviously “needs to answer questions” about her activities upon her return but also needs also to be “shown support.” It remains to be seen, however, whether she will return at all. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has revoked her citizenship, noting that she still retains Bangladeshi nationality and that her father has returned to Bangladesh. It’s not clear how the citizenship question will ultimately be resolved, but Begum has made it clear that she wishes to return to the UK where the social benefits are clearly superior.
In the television interviews she gives, she affects a normalcy and near-banality that evokes Hannah Arendt’s famous epigram about the Eichmann trial. Here is a young woman who left an apparently comfortable life as a straight-A high school student in Britain to join an organization that was self-avowedly bloodthirsty and at war, and now manages to speak of her experience as though she were expressing a preference for pop music. Asked about executions, she says, “I knew about those things and I was okay with it. Because, you know, I started becoming religious before I left. From what I heard, Islamically it is all allowed. So I was okay with it.” The sight of severed heads in dustbins, she avers, “didn’t faze me at all.” She says “a lot of people should have sympathy with everything I’ve gone through.” She just wants to “come home and live quietly with my child.”
That child, as one columnist remarked, is named after an Arab slayer of infidels. So it’s fairly understandable that most British people seem not at all eager to welcome her back into the bosom of their welfare state as if she had been on a gap year. All indications are that Sajid Javid’s revocation of her citizenship is broadly popular.
President Donald Trump clearly feels the same way. His administration is similarly trying to avoid the return to America of ISIS bride Hoda Muthana by claiming that she is not actually an American citizen (her father was a Yemeni diplomat at the time of her birth in New Jersey). Yet there are hundreds of other European “foreign fighters,” some of Muslim backgrounds and some converts, who are in similar situations and don’t have ambivalent nationality circumstances that makes it plausible to bar them. The ISIS fighters who want to “come home,” as their supporters invariably put it, are a security issue of some import for France, Belgium, and Germany as well.
Underlying all of this is the question of what attracted them to ISIS in the first place. Daniel Hannan, an author and European Parliament member, notes that Britain was able to recruit thousands of Indian Muslims to serve under British colors during the First World War, at a time when imperial Britain’s policy towards Bengali Muslims was certainly more unjust than anything conceivably faced by Muslims living in Britain today. What changed? “Why were Bengali Muslims, who at the time arguably had cause to resent Britain, prepared to don its uniform, while some of their descendants in Tower Hamlets, offered every benefit by the British state, cross half the world to oppose us?”
Hannan’s answer: “that Britain no longer conveys a sense of self-belief—the kind of self-belief that makes it easier for newcomers to want to belong.” So paradoxically—Hannan doesn’t say this but I’ll extend his point—the more Britain and other Western countries flagellate themselves over their historical misdeeds and purported racism, the less able they are to attract the loyalties of ethnic outsiders. So long as multiculturalism means, as it now does in the contemporary West, that every ethnic group is supposed to find cultural power and meaning and self-esteem in promoting its roots and heritage, and so long as the assigned role for whites is to wallow in the sins of their ancestors, radical hate-the-West groups will appear compelling to minorities.
Reading through some of the personal accounts of other Western jihadis, one shouldn’t doubt the appeal of radical doctrine. Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about two Belgian women who had married jihadis, joined ISIS in Syria, then returned with their infant children after their husbands were killed in battle. They were seemingly repentant and Belgium let them back in without question, and didn’t prosecute them. Then a year later, they went back and married new jihadis. Now they want to “come home” a second time. Belgium, having experienced a wave of ISIS terror over the past few years, is now more reluctant. The grandmother of one of them, who is lobbying for their return, is presented with utmost sympathy by The Washington Post’s reporters, and of course blames Belgium for all that has happened.
The problem of the returning jihadis shouldn’t be insurmountable from a logistical, numerical, or financial standpoint. It seems straightforward enough that people who joined governments engaged in war with the West committed treason—and should be tried as traitors if they seek to return. Some should be put to death. (Britain had no problem executing traitors after World War II—Rebecca West wrote one of the first books about it.) Others should be jailed. If authorities are worried about their ideology contaminating other inmates, then prisons can be built elsewhere. France no longer controls what used to be called Devil’s Island, but the souverainist politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan has suggested that other French territories, such as the Kerguelen Islands, be developed into extraterritorial prisons.
At bottom, it’s a question of attitude. Young people are attracted to societies and organizations that exhibit faith in their own legitimacy and are willing to sacrifice for it. Whatever one might say about Shamima Begum and her cohorts, they aren’t cowards and they aren’t snowflakes. Their reappearance now raises the question of whether the West believes in itself sufficiently to punish its traitors and rally those who want it to have a future. The verdict is still out on that.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.