British Islamophobia and the Case of Shamima Begum


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Taking a stand publicly to afford Begum her childhood and victimhood, and giving her access to the possibility of existing beyond her decisions as a 15-year-old — as is the norm for those who do not live within sites of oppression — is an important position to hold resolutely to disrupt, interrupt and challenge Islamophobia.

In light of this ruling, the first of many questions is, why has Begum’s childhood, for she was 15 at the time, been discarded so readily from the equation in the Supreme Court’s ruling? And what is the significance of denying her childhood? Being a child usually means we are granted innocence. But that innocence is denied when children belong to marginalized groups. In this case Begum’s Muslimness — under the system of oppression, Islamophobia — has her as a threat, and a danger, above all else.

And it’s not just Begum. Prevent, instituted in 2003 and later becoming a public sector duty in 2015, is the U.K. government’s policy that targets people — mainly Muslims as they represented 65% of referrals in 2016 — ahead of any supposed terrorist crimes they may commit. It relies on the (false) logic that Muslim people always have the potential to be dangerous even when doing banal quotidian activities. How else can we enact a policy based on pre-“crime” behavior? What’s more, last year Liberty the human rights organization revealed that the details of everyone referred to Prevent are stored on a huge police database, regardless of whether any further action is taken, further cementing their criminalization for merely existing.

Children are overwhelmingly punished under this policy. In 2019, a four-year-old boy was referred to Prevent, with police showing up at the family home at 10.30 pm, because, it later transpired, he was discussing the contents of a video game. Muslim children cannot even play.

And so with innocence stripped away, Begum also loses access to victimhood. She cannot be things that would invite our sympathies: such as a girl groomed, exploited, and trafficked and for whom we need to provide support to protect.

Connected to this is of course the reality that child-like innocence is frequently an excuse for the behaviour of those who are served by systems of oppression. White mass murderers are often given generous explainers for their behavior. One study found that the most common theme — found in about 46 percent of the articles about mass murderers in the USA— was that the shooter was a “victim of society.” This included articles that said the shooter was “going through a lot,” was “stressed out” or “suffered abuse as a child.” These are excuses not granted to people of color and not granted to Muslims. And we all know the expression used to ignore and dismiss sexist behavior men engage in: ‘boys will be boys’, infantilizing them to strip them of responsibility.

The consequences for Begum of this logic are dire. Begum has been denied her rights to a fair hearing — because the Supreme Court has acquiesced with the Home Office’s position and refuses to let her return to the U.K. It has been stated by the Supreme Court that her rights to due process cannot be met because she is a national security risk, and the latter trumps the former. She has also been stripped of her British Citizenship. Under international law, no one can be rendered stateless — and yet this is exactly what is part of Begum’s punishment. All under the pretext of course that she can gain Bangladeshi citizenship. Begum is not a dual citizen. But she has Bangladeshi heritage. And so here we also see racism in action: the right to British citizenship is conditional — as it has always been and as the Windrush “scandal” also confirmed — for those people who have links, no matter how tenuous, to other countries, specifically of the global south.

What’s more, the Home Secretary’s assertion that Begum is a ‘Bangladeshi — British dual citizen’ is predicated on the assumption that Begum can receive Bangladeshi citizenship. This assertion presupposes the sovereignty of Bangladesh, which has not been given a voice in this matter, along with Begum. It is not for the UK to make a decision for another country on who should be their citizen. The U.K., in disposing of Begum in this way and under this rationale, also continues to place itself in the imperial center — effectively positioning Bangladesh, as many have noted, as its penal colony.

So what of this idea that Begum poses a threat to public safety? To this, we must call attention to the hypocrisy at the heart of this claim by the U.K. government. Only the other week, as Joshua Virasami noted, the Inquiry into the Grenfell fire of 2017 saw the combustible cladding company that was responsible for killing 72 people walk away without consequences.

Or what about the government’s responsibility for the fact that in 2020 1.9 million people survived in food banks? Poverty surely is a risk to one’s security. Or what of the 125,000 people and counting dead from coronavirus, the highest per capita in the world? People’s safety is actually all at risk because of the above – and yet…? There are two standards here.

So what are the implications of this for you in your workplace? The case of a Muslim schoolgirl may feel distant and remote from your concerns. But the underlying logic that has led to the punishment and banishment of Begum in law is precisely why your company is more likely to employ people called Adam over Mohamed. It’s also why Bangladeshi and Pakistani women — confronting the intertwined oppressions of sexism, Islamophobia, and racism — face the highest rates of unemployment in the UK, fuelling their material dispossession and simultaneously reinforcing the justification for their unemployment. Decisions like that made by the Supreme Court about Begum, and the overwhelming agreement by the mainstream that it’s the right decision, are borne of and create conditions that make suspicion, aggression, dehumanization, and devaluing of your Muslim colleagues permissible and possible in your workplace, perhaps even by you.

So taking a stand publicly to afford Begum her childhood and victimhood, and giving her access to the possibility of existing beyond her decisions as a 15-year-old — as is the norm for those who do not live within sites of oppression — is an important position to hold resolutely to disrupt, interrupt and challenge Islamophobia.

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