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From Windrush to Begum

From Windrush to Begum: is nothing incontrovertible for BAME Brits?

9 April 2019

Miriyam Aouragh of UCU's Black Members' Standing Committee writes on the recent case of Shamima Begum and the chilling parallels with Home Office policy affecting citizens of colour.

Miriyam Aouragh, BMSC

Many people of colour this month realised just how hollow the liberal promise of 'citizenship' is, and experienced, shared and expressed their fury and fear about it. We can be sure that many are more fatalist than ever about their position and especially their rights in this society. The randomness and the double-standards we have witnessed is shaking the foundations of our confidence as individuals which is shaped by our (naively?) assumed understanding of unyielding rights as subjects of a democratic nation-state.

But this nation-state has shown its racial and imperial face with the Shamima Begum case.

On the one hand, Britain has been an active participant in the so-called War on Terror which has caused many horrific things through its monstrosity in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of them the unleashing of the monstrous phenomenon of ISIS who cynically conquered the trauma in Iraq and continued the same tour to Syria during its counter-revolutionary deflection after the Syrian uprising. On the other hand, the racial bias is painfully evident in all its official commentary and portrayals and political double standards in the case of Begum. Home secretary, Sajid Javid ordered that the citizenship of Begum (who went to join Isis in 2015), who he thought also had Bangladeshi citizenship, be revoked after she said she wanted to return to the UK, but did not announce the same in the case of Letts, a young white man who actually does hold dual nationality - British-Canadian- who left to join ISIS in 2014, and who asked the same.

The media framing has been one of a cold-hearted Shamima Begum, who expressed no remorse, failing to make it clear she was a minor and has changed as well. For when she did say that she didn't fully know what she was getting herself in and regrets joining ISIS ('No, don't do it, they are lying to you') no one really believed her. It's a familiar catch-22. Such a reality is partly the result of a process of dehumanisation, Islamophobia being the sharpest edge of the racist blade hurting our societies. This doesn't happen automatically.


If we want to understand this case, we must bring context and ethnography to the matter: Begum was an official minor. Yes, a 15-year-old kid, who was apparently coupled to an ISIS fighter in an arranged marriage in Syria. And in any case, someone who endured horrific things: from losing her friends with whom she left London to burying two babies, etc. The Home Office suggests to abandon mother and child in a war zone is acceptable yet in its own guidelines, the safety of the child is key. Moreover, there could be an investigation into her activities as a member of ISIS. Letts too was coupled by ISIS and married an Iraqi woman who had given birth to their son.[1] Begum was told a day after giving birth. But the dehumanisation of certain groups is so deep that this of no concern. As Mark Steel says in his painfully sarcastic column about what is thought "... this is an Isis baby, gurgling hatred and squeezing out vile anti-western poo. Don't tell me that baby didn't know what it was doing when it was conceived by a traitor." [2]

Dehumanisation doesn't happen automatically. It is both enshrined and reflected by policy.

According to the Home Office Begum cannot return because she is no longer considered British. Initially she should instead go to Bangladesh. On an abstract level, where is the outcry and heartless response for white boys and girls joining the colonising IDF and returning to European nation-states? Indeed, many of us have been wondering how we discuss this with colleagues or students without being seen as legitimating terrorism and whilst being genuinely critical. In fact, personally, as an organiser for solidarity with the Syrian revolution I myself am extremely critical of those going to 'fight' there, to build a fantasy khalifat - which meant strengthening the counter-revolution and Bashar Assad - and all the horrors ISIS has done to Syrians. Yet, I too deplore how easy it has become for some to think let her just deteriorate there and not question the process.


Our task is first and foremost to deconstruct this process and particular case as part of a larger political reality, and understand how this is in-turn imbued with systematic racist double standards with much bigger consequences than may at first appear. Firstly, stripping non-white Brits of their nationality must be condemned, if only because the framework (terrorism) under which this is legitimised, can be extended: it's black and Muslims today, it will be others tomorrow.

Secondly, we must find correlations across the political spectrum and examples. Two points need to be highlighted in this, Windrush and Disposition matrix. Probably stronger than Begum, Windrush is a crucial example of toying with notion of citizenship. Just like Begum has never been to Bangladesh, this is an echoing fact in one of the most scandalous episodes of recent history during which numerous people deported to Jamaica, a country most of them don't know. Many came to Britain as children, some had indefinite leave to remain, others even had a British passport. Both cases raise the same questions: what does it mean to be a citizen of this country? How easily can the rights of citizenship be withheld as Gary Younge asked?[3]

But to make a dialectical correlation we also need to historicise. When we have these discussions, we need to recall the Disposition Matrix'. This was one of (then) Home Secretary Theresa May's horrific policies summed up as a collaboration with a 'Kill List' executed by the US military.[4] As the lists have become longer we realise that Begum is just a more expressive case because of the special circumstances and the media scope most probably provided by the journalist who met her and found the scoop. She is the example-writ-small of something horrible that is happening across the board and over a much longer time period.[5]


How will this end? We simply don't know. Some say that Begum and others returning will jeopardise all of us. But who is 'us' here? The risk of EDL and far-right groups - a white menace is not important? - does not absolve them from their nationality or citizenship. And, however counterintuitive this may seem: for a good reason. In a way, the damage is already done. For many of us this was a litmus test. It is clear that if there are legal loopholes they will immediately be used. In other words, sometimes the intentions buzz far louder in our heads than the eventual practice.

PS In a terrible but very predictable turn of events the question about where Begum's newborn son will go is rendered irrelevant.

Last updated: 10 April 2019