Artillery Row

We need to forgive Shamima Begum

An ISIS bride calls Christianity’s bluff

Shamima Begum has given a solid demonstration of how a former so-called ISIS bride can have a better handle on the New Testament — and the Christian principles upon which Western civilisation is supposedly founded — than many of her critics. 

Appearing live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain from a detention camp in Syria, the 22-year-old appealed to the British public to forgive her transgressions since she fled her east London home as a 15-year-old schoolgirl bound for ISIS.

“I know it is very hard for them to forgive me, but I say from the bottom of my heart that I am so sorry if I ever offended anyone by coming here, if I ever offended anyone by the things I said,” Begum says. “For those who have even a drop of mercy and compassion and empathy in their hearts, I tell you from the bottom of my heart that I regret every, every decision I’ve made since I stepped into Syria and I will live with it for the rest of my life.”

Begum has invoked one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity

Begum has invoked one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity — without which life would descend into a never-ending cycle of recrimination and blood feuds — but with which many commentating on Begum’s plight seem unfamiliar. Begum’s plea for forgiveness is falling on many deaf ears, with pundits rolling out the “You made your bed, you lie in it” adage, and despite clear mitigating circumstances. 

That those drops of mercy, compassion and empathy tend to evaporate too quickly nowadays is bad news for Begum, but also for everyone else. Begum’s case is emblematic of the sorry state of forgiveness in the UK and the modern world. As forgiveness has receded, it has been replaced by the likes of victimhood and cancel culture, incessant blaming, self-righteous rage, identity politics and polarisation.

Furthermore, the shifting timbre of a society’s morality colours the workings of its judicial system, which Begum is also experiencing. Her British citizenship was revoked in 2019 by the then home secretary, Sajid Javid; the supreme court ruled earlier this year that she could not return to the UK to contest her case in person. 

Morality and justice sit alongside each other, but do not always agree to cooperate. Hence a murderer may be forgiven by the victim’s relatives but still goes to jail. That justice proves too often rigid, and hence cruel, is one of the reasons why mercy is viewed as a higher virtue, which used to be discussed by church leaders, before they got distracted

On that moral plain, those dismissing Begum’s plea fail to perceive how she has undoubtedly already suffered and paid a high price for her actions: three children she had after marrying an ISIS fighter died in infancy. She was only 15 when she made her reckless choice, and still only 19 when she clumsily compared the Manchester Arena bombing to military assaults on Syria (plenty of people make outlandish claims or apply similarly perverse logic everyday—it’s part of a democratic society and being human). There is also the suffering of her family, which barely gets a mention.

The paradoxical aim of Western elites in the Islamic world is to try to build the City of God without God

When it comes to the judicial level, Begum says there is “no evidence” she was involved in terrorist acts — there were reports she helped sew suicide vests for Islamic State, though the claims have never been tested in court — and counters that all she did with the Islamic state was to be “a mother and wife”. She says she wants to return to the UK and appear in court to refute the terror charges against her. Again, her grip on due process and the basics of our justice system appears better than many others who applaud her loss of citizenship and subsequent wasted life in limbo.

“It is a deeply unwell society which looks on unmoved at this public lynching of Shamima Begum,” commented one Twitter user. 

Those so quick to condemn Begum would do well to pause and set this against the context of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and all that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war on terror that Begum is caught up in.  

“Groups like al-Qaeda make explicit claims to be waging religious war or jihad. Most Muslims reject them,” writes Daniel McCarthy in his Spectator article The War on Terror is a war of religion. That is where Begum made her biggest mistake, clearly, falling for the corruption of Islam preached by ISIS, but it is also where we made — and continue to make — mistakes of a similar hue, as McCarthy explains:

That rejection is not, however, the same thing as embracing the secular religion we have tried to export. The paradoxical aim of Western elites when they make plans for the Islamic world is to build not a humble, functional, imperfect earthly order, but the City of God — only without God. This is so far from being feasible that the time and resources required to achieve it cannot be anything less than infinite.

There still hasn’t been enough discussion of how interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan blurred the lines between who was actually causing the most harm and evil, and how our actions overseas may have corrupted our societies back home in ways we don’t fully realise. 

“War is accompanied and followed, among other things, by a widespread dissemination of anger, hatred, pride, cruelty and fear,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy, his religious anthology. 

While Afghanistan and Iraq were waged almost entirely removed from everyday life back in the UK and US, and by professional and volunteer armies whose members were left to carry the guilt and shame in the shadows, it cannot be a coincidence that since 9/11, the conduct of those wars has been accompanied by the apparent malaise and breakdown in civic values back in the liberal West.

“People are proud of their bitterness now,” Peggy Noonan wrote in her Wall Street Journal opinion column in 2019 about how divided the US was becoming.  

There are clearly many other factors at play — especially the rise of the Internet, social media and the inveigling of technology into our lives — but, as Huxley also noted, “human nature is tripartite, consisting of a spirit as well as of a mind and body,” and that spiritual realm has been sullied since 9/11 in ways we still haven’t come to grips with.

Begum is demonstrating an understanding of that, certainly in relation to her personal behaviour. It’s time for others to display a similar moral maturity, accompanied by old-fashioned British civility toward Begum. Let her return to her home to face her day in court.

“Civility is more than good manners,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. “It is an affirmation that the problems of some are the problems of all, that a good society presupposes collective responsibility, that there is a moral dimension to being part of this nation, this people, this place.” 

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