Notes From the Margins…

Shamima Begum and the Quality of Mercy

  • February 17, 2019
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What is mercy?   The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘ compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.’  This definition highlights the essential component of mercy, which is forbearance and leniency from a position of power and authority.

This concept is well-established in various religious traditions.  The Quran declares: ‘ No one despairs of God’s soothing mercy except those who have no faith.’ (Quran, 12: 87).  ‘Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you,’ insists Ephesians 4: 31 -32.

Such exhortations are partly based on the notion that God is merciful (sometimes) and that therefore human beings should strive to be merciful too.  But societies don’t need religious authority to be merciful.  In The Merchant of Venice, Portia describes mercy as a dispensation of the Almighty, but she also insists that mercy shown by kings is ‘twice blest/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes/ ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest/ It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.’

Needless to say, this is not a notion that Daesh/Islamic State has ever showed any interest in or familiarity with.  On the contrary, Daesh has not shown an iota of pity, mercy or humanity, not to the prisoners it executed, nor to the people who transgressed its savage laws, nor the non-Muslim or non-Sunni minorities it conquered and enslaved during its rampage through Iraq and Syria.

Nor did its motley followers show any mercy to the men and women they slaughtered in Paris, London, Nice and many other places.   More than any of the various jihadist organisations that have sprung up across the world in the last two decades, Daesh has positively reveled in cruelty and killing.

Given this history, it’s logical to ask why the UK and any other state should show any mercy or forgiveness towards the foreign fighters and supporters who once rushed to join the ranks of caliphate, and are now returning to the countries they came from in the aftermath of its collapse.

This phenomenon has become the subject of national publicity since the ‘ISIS schoolgirl’ Shamima Begum was interviewed by Times reporter Anthony Lloyd in a Syrian refugee camp last week.

 

At first sight, the heavily-pregnant Begum is not the most obvious object of mercy and forgiveness, despite her insistence that she wants to return ‘home’.  Though she refers vaguely to the ‘underground oppression’ of Muslims under Daesh, she makes it clear that she did not regret joining the caliphate, and seems to suggest that she would have been comfortable with  such ‘oppression’ had it been limited to non-Muslims.

Begum did herself no favours, and the Home Secretary Sajid Javid responded exactly how you would expect him to, declaring:

My message is clear.  If you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return.  We must remember that those who left Britain to join Daesh were full of hate for our country.  If you do manage to return you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.

Javid knows what gallery he is playing to, and there has never been a time when a Tory government needed so desperately to find a sympathetic audience somewhere.  But Begum’s appeal has been discussed all over the media, and also on social media and below-the-line commentaries,  where it has ignited a stream of vicious hatred that – if acted upon, would take the country very deep into the gutter.

That is exactly the audience Javid is playing to, and even though you can understand why he would want to do this, his suggestion that Begum should be considered persona non grata does not make much sense in the broader scheme of things.

The extent to which Begum is a ‘brainwashed’ victim or an active and conscious participant in Daesh’s crimes remains to be determined.  Nevertheless, with Daesh on the brink of final collapse, the priority of any sensible government should be to provide routes for the reintegration and deradicalisation of the foreign fighters who want to return.

There is of course a risk that some of them might seek to carry out attacks in this country.    However, those fighters who are still intent on carrying out such attacks will plot such things anyway, and stripping them of their citizenship and leaving them with nothing to lose is likely to increase their willingness to do so.

If we are serious about ‘fighting terror’, we need to find ways of closing the cycle of cruelty and vengeance that has unfolded across the world ever since the 9/11 mass killings, and we should seek to limit the appeal that Daesh and similar organisations have to Muslims in this country who might be attracted to them.  We also need to understand what motivated people like Begum.

One step towards achieving these objectives is to create pathways back into UK society for those who are genuinely looking for them.  That doesn’t mean we should welcome Begum and her fellow-jihadists  back into the country with a big hug and a cup of tea.  As Javid suggested, she should be thoroughly vetted and questioned, and where crimes have been committed, she should be punished.

But beyond that, there should be an opportunity for redemption for those who want to be redeemed.   This isn’t about being ‘soft on terrorism’.   It’s not about showing how liberal we are and patting ourselves on the back.

Of course demonstrating that we aren’t like Daesh is an aspiration that every society should aim for, but it’s also common sense.  Because Daesh would not want us to behave like this.  It would prefer that our governments showed the same cruelty and implacability that it showed.

It would prefer us to show no mercy.  It would prefer us to act out of vengeance and hatred.  And there is no better reason why we shouldn’t give in to that temptation.

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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