Of all the points made on the case of Shamima Begum, the most relevant has been utterly absent. That is, who might actually be responsible for this appalling young woman being who she is and where she is.
In recent days the government’s own extremism commissioner, Sara Khan, has made an uncommon set of interventions. In each of these she has insisted that Begum must return to the UK and that not doing so will ‘play into the hands of the extremists’. Some of us are becoming a little jaded about the number of things said to risk ‘playing into the hands of extremists’. Over the last two decades one might easily have come to the conclusion that the only thing that doesn’t ‘play into the hands of the extremists’ is allowing the extremists to win.
Anyway, in her various interventions the usually admirable Khan has insisted that there are two aspects to the Begum case which must be addressed. The first is the internet. In The Sunday Times (in a piece headlined ‘If we abandon Shamima Begum we abandon our values too’) Khan claimed that Begum was ‘groomed and exploited by extremists in the unregulated and arguably irresponsible world of social media’. It was Shamima yesterday, but it could easily be any of us tomorrow. Throughout her piece Khan presents Begum as a poor victim of forces beyond her control. If only we in Britain had developed a better understanding of extremism, the government’s extremism commissioner dispassionately suggests, ‘perhaps Shamima would have never made that fateful journey.’
The second thing that Khan suggests we need is ‘a whole society response’ to extremism, including ‘cohesive and resilient communities’. Tackling this issue is apparently ‘a responsibility that falls on us all.’ A claim that is fascinatingly untrue. Because of course in fact there is absolutely nothing - zilch, nada, diddly-squat - that most people in Britain can do to stop Islamist extremism. And they would be damn foolish to give it a try, given the accusations that will come their way. The idea that the average British person’s aunt, second-cousin twice removed, and the old lady down the street all have to play their part to stop people signing up to head-hacking, Yezidi-enslaving, millenarian Islamist movements is stretching things I would say. But this is the comfortable counter-extremism argument of our time in Britain. Let us blame huge forces – the internet, society as a whole – so that the answers we can propose are so broad and flabby as to be meaningless.
One problem of this spreading around of blame is that it allows people who may actually to be to blame to get off the hook. Rather than handing out a portion of blame to every household in the land why shouldn’t we all (led by the government’s extremism commissioner) start pointing fingers at the friends, families and mosque of these disgusting girls. What would we see if we did?
Before Shamima and her two school friends went out to join ISIS another school friend had gone out ahead of them. This was the confusingly closely named Sharmeena Begum. She seems to have encouraged the three girls – including Shamima – to follow in her wake. That is a good and specific place to start laying some blame.
Then there are the families. I wrote about the family of one of the Bethnal Green schoolgirls in this place four years ago. Some readers will remember that back then the father of one of the three girls – Mr Abase Hussen – appeared in front of Keith Vaz’s Parliamentary Committee and blamed the police for not stopping his daughter going out to join ISIS. The heads of Britain’s cowed police force duly appeared in front of the same committee to express remorse at their failings. As part of a slick PR campaign Mr Hussen also had himself photographed holding a teddy bear, repeatedly expressing to Britain’s gullible media and politicians that he had no idea why his daughter would ever have had a bad Islamist thought.
Except that then some footage emerged of Mr Hussen at a demonstration in London in 2012. Not a demonstration calling for global peace and love, but a rally organised by Anjem Choudary to burn American flags and more. ‘The followers of Mohammed will conquer America’ read the banner at the front of the protest. The protest was also attended by Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby. Where can Mr Hussen’s daughter have picked up her radical ideas? In the home, or in a generalised way from the failings of all of British society? As I said four years ago:
‘Mr Hussen came to this country from Ethiopia and used at least part of his time here to denounce this country and campaign to radically change it. When something happens to his family his first instinct is to attack the authorities of the country which has given him sanctuary. That is not of course surprising. What is surprising is that our societies are at such a stage of weakness that we assume that it is the institutions of our society that have gone awry rather than anything closer to the girls’ home.’
Let’s look at some more apportioning of blame. A good signifier of what the families of the Bethnal Green jihadis themselves believe could be said to have been confirmed by the lawyer that they selected to represent them. This is one Tasnime Akunjee, who has been back in the media in recent days urging Britain to view poor Shamima as a victim of ‘grooming’. Dastardly internet and all that. Which conveniently makes you and me – dear reader – at least as culpable for Islamist extremism as Mr Akunjee. Which probably suits him nicely.
Back in 2015 Akunjee also publicly and repeatedly berated the British police for their ‘failures’. But then we learned that he too is an extremist, with links to – among others – the extremist group ‘Cage’. While Akunjee was berating the British police for their failures in finding out what his clients’ daughters were thinking he must simply have forgotten to mention that he himself had previously said that British Muslims should not cooperate with the British police. So even if his clients had worried that their daughters were about to join ISIS, Akunjee’s advice would presumably have been that they must under no circumstances cooperate with the police and tell them that. Oh, and Akunjee also believes that the security services in Britain ‘created’ Michael Adebolajo – the other killer of Lee Rigby.
What about the mosque? Might any fingers be reasonably pointed there? Four years ago, when Shamima and friends went out to join ISIS, Muslim leaders in Britain were very fast to blame the internet for the radicalisation. Terrible thing this internet. Awful the way it can turn people’s brains. Again, this was comfortable for everybody. We must all play our part, etc. But the facts that needed to be known were a lot less comfortable. Back in 2015 it emerged that Sharmeena (the first girl)’s father said that his daughter used to ask him ‘to take her to the East London Mosque as she wanted to go and pray there’. It appears that it was at this mosque that Sharmeena was first radicalised, most likely by members of a women’s wing of the Islamic Forum of Europe known as ‘Sisters Forum’ or ‘Muslimaat’. Sharmeena’s step-uncle (Baki Miah) told a newspaper four years ago that some of these women at the mosque told his step-niece that ‘if she goes and dies in Syria she would go to paradise.’ He added, ‘I am 500 per cent sure she was groomed at the East London Mosque. She was spending most of her time in the mosque, after school and all the time, she was spending in the mosque.’
I understand very well why the leadership at East London Mosque, the families, lawyers and friends of the schoolgirls who went to join ISIS should wish to spread the blame around to every household in Britain and to the internet. What baffles me is why the government’s extremism commissioner – a person appointed to speak truth – should start playing the same game, loosely and emotively spreading blame across the entire population in one of her rare interventions in the national debate.
Perhaps Khan is attempting to gain some admiration or credibility from radicals who will continue to hate her anyway. But there is a wider societal reason why this sort of avoidance game must be avoided. When blame is spread around this thinly then nothing gets done.
Personally I’d rather we took a different approach. The people who do bear some responsibility should be called out, prosecuted, punished, deported or imprisoned. That is what a sane society would do. And that is what anyone employed to speak truth to government should advocate. The Prime Minister appointed the extremism commissioner because after the attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena and London Bridge / Borough Market she said that enough was enough. Apparently it wasn’t. If it had been then this professional blame-avoidance would not be happening. We would be staring the problem right in its face, and we would be tackling it.