Reading the news this week of Jihadi Jack (née Letts, of Oxfordshire) having his UK passport withdrawn, my mind went to a Canadian television programme earlier this year. While most people can’t recall what was on TV last night, for us connoisseurs of western masochism the 2019 Easter edition of Tout le monde en parle (Television de Radio-Canada) was a collector’s item. The subject was Omar Khadr.
In case you haven’t had the pleasure, the Khadrs are a Canadian family of Palestinian-Egyptian origin. Since 2001 they have had a sketchy patch. Specifically, family members have shown a terrible propensity for being at ‘weddings’ at the wrong place and time. Specifically around the Pakistan-Afghan border. And generally involving less an exchange of vows so much as an exchange of bullets with infidel soldiers. Papa Khadr died in one such exchange (of ammunition, not vows) while one son was wounded in action. Another son, Omar, was captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay where he was charged with the killing of US Sergeant Christopher Speer.
Back home, Khadr mère never made any effort to hide the family’s loyalties or expectations, memorably saying of the Canadian taxpayers’ requirement to pay to support her wounded son: ‘I’m Canadian, and I’m not begging for my rights. I’m demanding my rights.’ As Mark Steyn said, the Khadr family demonstrated that whether you chose to fight for the ‘home’ team or the ‘away’ team in these 21st-century wars doesn’t much matter, because if the ‘away’ team fails, you get the same bonuses as if you’d played for the ‘home’ side. Rather more in fact.
A couple of years ago the Canadian government awarded Omar Khadr more than $10 million dollars for the inconvenience of his post-9/11 years. Which was considerably more than any American, Canadian or British widow got for a deeper hurt. But it is the sort of gesture of which Britain has also become fond. They crop up still, our own British jihadi-jackpot winners. Always with a case. Always with lawyers and an army of supporters. But few have been supported so copiously as Khadr was at Easter.
The multi-millionaire entered the Montreal studio to a standing ovation. He talked sadly about the flashbacks and PTSD he had suffered since being in an ‘unfortunate place’ in ‘unfortunate circumstances’. The audience and fellow guests were filled with admiration. ‘How can you be so mentally strong?’ asked one. ‘Because, like, you seem so zen after everything that happened to you.’
Khadr explained that while some people think he’s special, he doesn’t think he is, because we all have strength, and should all believe in ourselves. Other portions of Hallmark Cards wisdom proved equal catnip to the Canadians. ‘From what I see right now, I see a strong, willing man,’ the fellow guest continued. ‘And I still can’t, I don’t know — you’re amazing.’ Khadr smiled benevolently.
I only mention this scene because it has been playing in my mind since the issue of returning Isis fighters re-erupted in the UK. You will recall the furore earlier in the year when the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, announced he was revoking the citizenship of Shamima Begum, one of the British schoolgirls who went to join Isis. From the moment that happened, it was certain Jihadi Jack would lose his passport too.
During the Begum affair I was as unmoved as anyone by her family and lawyer’s pleas. Nor was I much more impressed by those individuals who tried to insist that somehow we were ‘all to blame’ for her joining Isis. But one objection did ring true. A number of prominent Muslims, including friends of mine who I listen to, noted that our country presents itself as blind once someone has become a subject: equal before the law and just like everyone else. Some of us may quibble with the realities, but that is the stated situation. Yet if Shamima Begum can have her passport taken away, does that not suggest there is a twin-track reality? One in which some people — notably people of Muslim origin — can lose their passports, while nobody else would lose theirs in comparable circumstances.
It was striking, this argument. Not just because it had a point, but because it seemed to cause genuine unease among some British Muslims who are among the best advocates against the extremists.
So forceful was the logic that it meant Jihadi Jack was for it. To demonstrate that we do indeed have one law for all, the Oxfordshire schoolboy had to be de-passported too. And this week he was. It transpired that the Letts family are helpfully unsympathetic. Jack’s father recently expressed regret that his ‘armchair revolutionary shite’ (his words, not mine) may have influenced his son. Meanwhile Jack mocked the idea of the British taking his passport away, saying he didn’t want to live in a country where Boris Johnson is prime minister anyway.
Whatever the pros or cons of Johnson’s Britain, I feel this at least can be chalked up as an early win. Because while we certainly know what to do in a foreign theatre, societies like ours still have no idea what to do with the Shamimas and Jacks if they return.
As in Canada, I can predict it. There would have been a softball interview on the Today programme, followed by a Vaseline--lensed television special. After some sympathetic profile pieces, a legal case for mistreatment somewhere would have got under way, pro-bono-ed by sympathetic lawyers. Finally the great machine of state would doubtless have coughed some money Jack’s way too. Soon studio audiences would be applauding his bravery. Because he’d had to put up with something, and had in any case ‘been on a journey’.
It writes itself, this era. We just can’t help ourselves from giving every benefit of every doubt to the perpetrators, while rarely if ever bothering to learn the names of their victims. Keep them away, I say. For we only embarrass ourselves when they return.