The British government’s decision to strip Daesh runaway Shamima Begum of her citizenship not only exposes the country’s double standards, but also reveals that the United Kingdom’s notorious class system and institutional racism are both as entrenched as ever. The treatment of the teenager from East London is very different to that of Asma Al-Assad, yet both women were born and educated in London, and both are married to war criminals who’ve carried out atrocities on the ground in Syria, although only one has used chemical weapons on women and children. Here’s a clue: it wasn’t Begum’s husband.
Despite Prime Minister Theresa May saying that she had evidence that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was behind the chemical weapon attack on the city of Douma on 7 April last year, his upper middle class, London-born wife Asma still enjoys her British citizenship. During a press conference last April, the PM accused Assad of war crimes, citing several sources, and said that a barrel bomb was used to deliver the chemicals from a helicopter. “The [Syrian] opposition does not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs,” she explained. “And reliable intelligence indicates that Syrian military officials co-ordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine in Douma.”
May indicated that there was other intelligence-based evidence which she was unable to share with the public. America and France issued similar statements. The British response was a series of air strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities carried out without UN approval.
Sajid Javid MP backed the strikes. “A necessary and proportionate response that will deter & degrade Syrian chemical weapons capability,” he tweeted on 14 April. Within 16 days his loyal cheerleading was rewarded when he was appointed Home Secretary, one of the “Great Offices of State” which he used this week to strip 19-year-old Shamima Begum of her British citizenship.
Some say that his tough stance on Begum was motivated in part by ambitions to be the next Prime Minister. Yet despite his uncompromising position on the young Londoner, who was groomed online as a child by Daesh’s slick propaganda, he has taken no such hard-line action to revoke the citizenship of the privileged, British-born wife of the 21st century’s biggest mass killer. The teenage Begum wants to come home; secret emails, however, have revealed that far from showing any signs of remorse, Asma Al-Assad celebrated her husband’s brutal bombing of the city of Homs by splashing out tens of thousands of pounds on luxury goods.
While a UN commissioner said two years ago that there’s enough evidence to convict her husband of war crimes, she was using European-based fixers to buy luxury goods. Asma’s world is a million miles from the life that Begum led in war-torn Syria. Known as the “runaway ISIS bride”, Begum has been savaged by Javid while he appears to have no concerns at all about Asma Assad, who is called the “First Lady of sarin and chlorine attacks” by her detractors.
Last year Assad was diagnosed with breast cancer and photographs on social media in October revealed that the 43-year-old had clearly lost her hair following chemotherapy. The teenager has found virtually no sympathy in the media for her own personal traumas and tragedies — including the loss of two babies — but there was a wave of sympathy for the wife of the Syrian leader who has brutally repressed his people in an eight-year-long civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, children and men, and driven millions from their homes.
While I wouldn’t wish such an awful illness on anyone — no, not even the wife of the war criminal Assad — at the launch of the International Conscience Movement in Istanbul on Wednesday I listened in dismay as Syrian women talked about their horrific experiences as prisoners of the Assad regime. One survivor related how female cancer sufferers were refused help or treatment and often faced very painful deaths with great courage inside Assad’s prisons. The conference was informed that there are still 7,000 women and up to 400 children held in the Syrian regime’s prisons.
Unlike the women held prisoner by her husband’s regime, Asma Assad has a good chance of surviving her cancer. If she is complicit in war crimes thanks to her unstinting and well-documented support of the brutal dictator then she may even live to face a court and pay the penalty.
However, I doubt that her wealthy, privileged, Syrian-born parents living in security in West London will receive a letter from Sajid Javid similar to the one that he sent to Begum’s mother at her East London home. She was informed by the Home Office that her daughter’s British citizenship was being revoked because she herself was born in Bangladesh, which entitles Shamima to dual citizenship; losing her British passport, therefore, will not make her stateless, which would be against the law. The rather arrogant presumption is, of course, that the government of Bangladesh will grant Begum citizenship and a passport.
The Home Office letter said that the decision had been taken “in light of the circumstances of your daughter.” It closed with, “I would be very grateful if you could ensure the home secretary’s decision is brought to her attention, along with her right to appeal.” So very polite; so terribly British. A stab in the back with a smile.
Meanwhile, Begum continues to insist that she is not a threat to anyone, although critics point out that she has expressed no regret for joining Daesh. “I’m a 19-year-old girl with a newborn baby,” she told ITV News. “I don’t know how I would be seen as a danger. I’m not going to go back and provoke people to go to ISIS or anything. If anything I’m going to encourage them not to go because it’s not all as it seems in their videos.”
The family lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, says that the teenager is being treated worse than Nazi war criminals were. “Our politicians are saying that she should be denied the legal protections and due process that were granted to Nazis,” he argued. “The Nazis had the Nuremberg trials. They were given due process. This girl was a victim when she went out there at 15 years old.”
It seems that in Britain the law still operates in favour of the privileged elite, like Asma Al-Assad, and not those who are easy targets for a right-wing media and populist commentariat. Shamima Begum is not only the wrong class, but also the wrong colour, unlike fair-skinned Assad. With a Home Secretary like multi-millionaire banker Sajid Javid desperate to prove his British credentials despite his working class Pakistani background, Begum can expect neither sympathy nor mercy from the British government. Wealth, class and race continue to rule in 21st Century Britain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.