First published on Verso blog 22nd February 2019.
The facts of the case of Shamima Begum, the nineteen year-old who ran away to Syria from her home in East London in 2015, are now well known. Yet, what is most striking about it is not the enactment of the deprivation of her citizenship, this already having become a staple feature of counter-terrorism practice for some years now, but the scale of media attention it has received. However, the current media scrutiny and sensationalism brings its own problems of distortion and displacement. It obscures the deep structural roots of the purported issue amidst a haze of crude and dramatic caricatures; it also suggests a sense of novelty, when in fact the underlying processes it masks are depressingly widespread. Put bluntly, the Home Office treatment of the Shamima Begum’s case is not anomalous; Shamima Begum’s case is not singular; the practice of citizenship deprivation is nothing new.
We know that there has been a significant spike in the use of deprivation powers of late –104 people have been stripped of their citizenship in 2017 – adding significantly to the number of deprivations that had already been on the rise since 2010. Begum is only the most recent case of a British Bangladeshi woman this has happened to. In 2017, another British Bangladeshi woman was stripped of her citizenship in similar circumstances. She was also alleged to be an ISIS member and had been detained along with her two young children by the Turkish authorities, with the British Government then arguing that she would be entitled to apply for Bangladeshi citizenship. Other deprivation cases in 2017 include those of aid workers who travelled to Syria and worked on charity-funded projects – individuals who had not been charged with any criminal offence but who were nevertheless informed by the Home Office that they were ‘assessed to have been involved in terrorism-related activity’. And then there are cases of citizenship deprivation that are not national security related at all.
Begum’s case, like the many others, sits at the crossroads of multiple, complex social and political structures – notably those of racism and islamophobia, patriarchy and gender violence, as well as specific geopolitical ruptures, all of which inform how her situation arose and how it is read, interpreted and analysed. There are thus multiple structural mechanisms we should be attentive to in our attempts to make sense of the meaning and significance of the deprivation of her citizenship.
Predictably, Begum, along with the other young Muslim women recruited by ISIS, has been framed within alternating tropes of victimhood and a barbarous ideological zealotry. It is an understatement to say that, as a 15-year-old Muslim girl groomed by ISIS, she has not been afforded the same empathy and recognition that has been extended to other young (white) rape victims. It is also true that she has agency – that there might be an appeal to the ideologies of caliphate utopia that ISIS are well known for promising. In this marketed paradise, ISIS indicate that they are a racially diverse nation where women will also play their role in Jihad. They offer a chance to escape from the racism and particular patriarchal experiences of home. As Rafia Zakaria insightfully asked some time ago: Is it possible that ISIS appeals to some Muslim women, not because they are fooled by it, but because its political vision seems to offer solutions to some of their problems?
But rather than attempting to grapple with the complexity of the issue at hand, a trial by media has used her seeming indifference to death and her lack of remorse for marrying an ISIS fighter to confirm her apparent inhumanity and her monstrous tendencies. It is of course racism that allows for the commentary on her desensitisation to death to occur in a framework that precludes any simultaneous reflection on the West’s daily apathy to the mortality and murder that surrounds us. A more critical analysis for understanding Begum would allow for complex mappings of how agency and vulnerability act in concert, revealing the deep human knots that shape any such situation. A complexity that might for once disrupt the tired Orientalist binary of villain/victim that remains the insistent schema through which Muslim women must always be read.
And so to punishment. The Home Secretary’s power to enact citizenship deprivation forces us to confront the racist structures of the state. The reality is that the enhancement of state powers to deprive citizenship has been cultivated over a longer period than commonly understood. Indeed, we might consider the precariousness now routinely attached to citizenship (as legal status), and the complementary reframing of what citizenship is and does, as being one of the most significant legacies of the domestic War on Terror. Since 2002, when this onslaught of deprivation laws were first initiated, Home Office powers have been progressively bolstered, culminating as of now in the 2014 Immigration Act – which included an amendment that allows for the Home Secretary to make naturalised Britons stateless if it is believed they can acquire citizenship elsewhere. This particular executive power is one that the Home Office seems to be intent on re-testing and refining. It is worth noting that there have been a handful of cases that have managed to successfully challenge deprivation orders – only last year the Special Immigration Appeals Commission decided against the Home Office for using this measure against two British Bangladeshi men, ruling that it would make them stateless since, as adults over the age of 21, Bangladesh would no longer recognise them. Nonetheless, in spite of these legal complications that occasionally surface, the Home Secretary has continued to deprive citizenship in similarly questionable cases. It is in this context of an experimental authoritarianism that the Home Office once again tests its luck against 19-year-old Shamima Begum.
To say that powers to deprive citizenship are deeply racialised ought to be evident. Legally, the very fact that there has to be at least the prospect of acquiring another citizenship means its use will always be selective. Substantively, these powers materially consolidate the possibility for repatriating brown and black subjects, an aspiration that has remained a recurring undercurrent of the British nationalist project in the postcolonial era and, as the the Windrush scandal revealed, is being realised through other avenues of the immigration system as well. But even as the potential reach of citizenship deprivation is expansive, particularly as it concerns racial minorities, its use to date has been specific; in nearly all cases it has been used against Muslims as part of the War on Terror. And unlike other fronts of the racial state where the disposability of racially marginal subjects has been exposed and met with uproar, there has been relative silence on deportations and the withdrawal of citizenship when enacted within this context.
So if the cases of deprivation in the counter-terrorism context are significant, it is because the project of dehumanisation that we would otherwise instinctively challenge tends to pass unopposed here, even by the left. Figures like Begum are serially scored by public associations that repel many who might otherwise be relatively comfortable in backing anti-racist positions. She is, namely, the figure of danger and transgression who cannot, or will not, win for herself that precious sense of innocence and gratitude that so much popular and liberal anti-racism demands. Our partial submission to these demonizations does inure us in turn to the very authoritarianisms that are cultivated on the back of such representations. As these messy, complex and difficult cases become instrumental for legitimating the enforcement of draconian disciplinary regimes, we risk losing the analytical faculties for reckoning with the creeping totalitarianism that becomes a normalised feature of governance and all its inevitably racialized effects. Indeed, the point about mobilising against the racist nature of policing is not simply to condemn the disproportionate targeting and disciplining of racially Othered bodies. The task is also to denounce the underlying processes by which the pathologisation of black and brown subjects functions as the necessary alibi for authoritarian policing (and related state disciplinary practices) in the first place.
The authoritarianism we speak of here, one that the demonization of Begum further licences, is no rhetorical throwaway. Counterterrorism policing allows for criminalisation and prosecution to circumvent any even vestigial sense of a transparent judicial process. This is a manifestation of justice that relies on a system of punishment first, prosecution second, and the identification of a crime last of all, if at all. It is a Kafkaesque cycle that feeds into a suite of pre-emptive counterterrorism policing that criminalises non-violent offences – behaviours that in other contexts might be defended within a more familiar liberal remit of freedom of speech, expression, and association. But this is also a system of policing that experiments with mechanisms that sidestep the usual domain of criminal justice altogether – resorting instead to secret immigration courts, lengthy pre-trial incarceration, deportation to countries known for practicing torture, passport removals, and also closed proceedings in family courts where increasing numbers of care orders are being issued against parents accused of radicalising their children.
And so the criminalisation of Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism reveals much more about the law and order society being envisaged than it reveals anything about the nature of a genuine threat to the polity from below. Put simply, recent measures are perhaps best read as an experimental harbinger of the full scope of the state security apparatus that might await us in a mutant post-judiciary era. Counterterrorism policing functions to help further advance, harden and normalise this security state – operating, in other words, to substantiate the state in the name of national security.
But, as I’ve already hinted, there are multiple forces at play in Shamima Begum’s case, and we risk centring a particular Eurocentric frame of the situation if we speak only of racism in the British context without due attention to the ongoing ravages of war in Syria. Putting Syria at the centre of our analysis forces us to reckon with role that ISIS, alongside the Assad regime and imperialist forces, have played in death and destruction in a war where the number of dead are reported as uncountable. The question of what to do with returning ISIS fighters is therefore a serious one. But the turn to citizenship deprivation as the summary solution has the effect of dislocating Britain from the ongoing war in which it is culpable. After all, to strip citizenship in this context says symbolically that, since you have acted against the interests of the nation, you cannot legitimately be of the nation. This is its populist appeal. But this is a construction of the British nation that is once again abjectly silent on the matter of Empire. As Adam Hanieh has articulated eloquently, the dramatic rise of ISIS from 2012 is the result of various intersecting factors – ‘the destructive spread of sectarianism, the devastating repression in Syria and Iraq, and the interests of different regional and international powers in the Middle East’. Britain plays here a deep role, both historic and contemporary, in cultivating and reinforcing the conditions that allowed a movement such as ISIS to flourish. The disaffected youth returning to its shores are therefore, in part, a product of its own making. Meanwhile, the total silence by the British government and mainstream media alike on the ongoing air strikes on civilian areas of Idlib should remind us that none of this is about valuing the life of Syria.