When do you become ‘British enough’?

Or what Shamima Begum’s case tells us about Britain’s identity crisis.

Shamima Begum
Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard [File: Getty/Laura Lean]

A teenager, just out of her childhood years, is groomed online by members of a group well known for advocating misogyny, regressive social practices, religious absolutism and violence. She disappears to join the group in its compound abroad. During a four year period, she is “married”, subjected to statutory rape, and loses two babies. Heavily pregnant and in a refugee camp as the group faces military defeat, she asks to return to the only country she can legitimately call home. The request is denied and she is subsequently stripped of British citizenship.

Many have noted correctly that had the young woman in question been a white Briton, it would have been less easy for British Home Secretary Sajid Javid to have made political capital by refusing a citizen’s request to return to her homeland, and less likely that he would have attempted to do so.

Shamima Begum, however, is brown, wears full hijab, has parents of Bangladeshi origin and is reported to have made ill-advised statements to a British journalist. She has apparently expressed little remorse for her action in running away from home to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), a patriarchal death cult in whose care, needless to say, she was likely subjected to significant amounts of ideological control despite exercising an obstinate child’s will in joining them.

As Anthony Lloyd, the journalist who interviewed her notes, “people do make crass statements at a time such as this”, not least when surrounded by current and former members of the cult in question.

He, himself, is clear that Shamima and other Britons who joined ISIL must now be brought back to face transparent, robust justice and to prevent further indoctrination into violent extremism. He has also said clearly that Shamima “has considerably more doubt and reserve over Islamic State” than has been suggested in the British media. She has certainly spoken of her husband, a Dutch convert to Islam and a former ISIL member, being tortured at their hands.

With one eye on his own prospective bid for the leadership of the Tory party, Javid did not hesitate to revoke Shamima’s British citizenship, a move very well received by British voters, including many who regard themselves as otherwise tolerant and liberal. Despite, or perhaps because of, Javid’s own ancestral links to Pakistan, which lends his actions a certain racial credibility, the message is loud and clear: If you are not white and have heritage links to Asian or African countries, you will be denied the right to due process and a fair trial and asked to “go back” to these places.

Bangladesh, rightly, has made clear that it takes no responsibility for Shamima, who was neither born nor raised there; that she may be entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents is not legally relevant. Her newborn child is certainly British by right, not Bangladeshi.

By trying to pass responsibility to Bangladesh, the British government implies that non-European nations have a greater affinity for suspected criminals and terrorists who in turn have a claim upon their citizenship. Since Shamima does not already hold a Bangladeshi passport it is likely that Javid’s decision will be overturned as illegal.

Apart from being legally dubious, Britain’s attempt to strip a British-born woman of citizenship underlines what many in Britain believe: That those who are not white and British, “really” belong somewhere else in the first and last instance, no matter how tenuous their relationship to that “somewhere else” is.

The most crudely honest declaration may have come from British author Allison Pearson, who wrote in the Telegraph newspaper: “Shamima Begum may have been born here, but she was never British.”

Disgraceful as it is, Pearson’s comment simply makes visible assumptions that are rife in the British media and which clearly underpinned the home secretary’s canny calculation: All citizens are supposed to be equal but citizens from minority ethnic communities are, in fact, less equal than others.

If you are of Asian, Caribbean or African heritage, you can’t really expect to be treated as “pukka British” no matter where you were born and how long you have or your family have lived in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, then, the treatment of Shamima, while supported by some among them, has caused anxiety in British minority ethnic communities, particularly those largely comprising Muslims, prominent targets of right-wing propaganda.

Coming as it has in the wake of the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Britons of West Indian descent have been and are still being deported “back” to Caribbean countries they have never lived in, the Home Office’s move has reinforced the suggestion that those who have ties to migrant communities and who are also racial minorities, must live constantly under the sign of not being quite fully British.

Citizenship for these groups, it turns out, is entirely conditional. They must constantly justify why they are in the UK in the first place, work three times as hard to be considered “British” and still face the charge that they can “never” be British, not really. They belong “over there”.

The point here is not that Shamima or others like her are innocent (though the law must presume that until proven otherwise), but that she is both subject and entitled to the same judicial processes and, if necessary, punishment as any other British citizen, including serious criminals, might be.

Indeed, the best chance of holding her accountable for any crimes she might have committed would be to let her return to Britain and face the courts and the “British justice” that many in this country like to uphold as a global model.

Instead, what has been allowed to happen sends out a grim warning; a manifestly racist trial by media in which well-known figures like the TV host Piers Morgan have screamed, using deliberately bestial images, about women who “have sex with” and “breed with” terrorists.

You do not have to be a supporter of any form of religious extremism or even especially liberal to consider the grave implications of what it means to bypass the law and judicial process altogether in favour of a heavy-handed state response to tabloid headlines screaming about “jihadi brides”.

The 1981 Nationality Act has provisions, with certain conditions, for a person to be stripped of citizenship “if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good”, not the public “mood”.

Ultimately though, the identity crisis about what it means to be “British” is not actually one that is taking place among British ethnic minority communities. As London mayor Sadiq Khan has rightly noted, the Home Office has “called into question the very nature of what it means to be a citizen of this country at all”.

The real crisis, as is evident from the endless shambolic drama around Brexit has to do with British identity itself, about what “Britain” is in a century where it has lost global pre-eminence for good, and where it is now dependent on its former colonies (the so-called “Commonwealth”) to save it from economic meltdown after it departs the European Union, should it do so at all.

Brexiteers paint Britain, with a heavy historical irony they cannot be unaware of, as a nation colonised by Europe striving to break the shackles of tyranny to “take our country back”. In the face of this profound confusion about what “Britain” actually means in the 21st century and uncertainty about what is uniquely “British”, it is perceived outsiders, precisely those who have ancestral links to former colonies, who have been charged with proving what “Britishness” is and ordered to enact pantomime versions of it or its presumed opposite.

They can be easily demonised: Shamima’s photograph is now available for customers at a shooting range to use as “light-hearted” target practice “fun”. The pantomime itself won’t end, however, until Britain accepts that it is one heterogeneous society among many in a global panorama, that there is no single version of “Britishness” and that citizens – for better or for worse – cannot be divided into different classes and subjected to differential treatment.

This is a tough lesson but one that will serve this country better than the fairytales of exceptional heroism and unique valour that have brought it so close to the brink in recent months.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.