It is almost five years since ISIS declared a caliphate in parts of northern Iraq and Syria. From countries across the West, hundreds of Muslim citizens found the promise of the caliphate so enticing that they heeded the call to join. Now we are in precisely the situation that anyone could have predicted, and many did: former members of Islamic State, who turned their backs on the West, are now trying to get back to the West. In each country there is now a completely predictable political row over whether they should be allowed to return or not.
Despite recently urging European countries to take responsibility for their own jihadis and have them back, President Trump says that he has instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ensure that Hoda Muthana, of Alabama, is not allowed back into the U.S. The secretary of state has declared that Muthana “is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States.” In the U.K., the home secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that Shamima Begum — who, like Muthana, joined ISIS but is now pleading to return to her home country from a refugee camp — will be stripped of her British citizenship so that she cannot return to the country. It is claimed that Begum has Bangladeshi citizenship too, although the authorities in that country deny this claim and insist that there is no way Begum is heading to their country.
There are good arguments on each side of the larger debate that has ensued. Begum was 15 when she went to join ISIS, and though she is obviously now an adult, her case is an especially difficult one on which to base any policy because of the additional question of the age of terrorist responsibility. Added to that, all countries are expected to abide by the international obligation not to make any person stateless, and so unless the individual has joint citizenship and the second country rather surprisingly decides that it could do with an extra ISIS fanatic in the mix, withdrawing citizenship opens the relevant authorities up to legal challenge.
In Europe in particular — which is already struggling with the integration of its Muslim populations — there is a serious additional question over what message a policy of stripping citizenship gives out. If I were to decide to leave the country, destroy my passport, and swear allegiance to a foreign jihadist group and would-be state, would the U.K. government strip me of my citizenship? Would they only do so if, like Begum, I were the child of immigrants? Many people, including people who should be taken seriously in this area — such as Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London — are insisting that the British home secretary’s treatment of Begum is actually “racist.” There are cases we could compare it with (such as that of “Jihad Jack,” a white convert who grew up in Oxford before joining ISIS), but the impression given out could well be that there is one rule for children of immigrants and another for others. If that impression is true, it would ride against the whole modern European multicultural insistence that once immigrants become citizens they are exactly, and in every way, equal.
What is remarkable is that we have had years to avert precisely this situation: not just half a decade with the case of ISIS, but almost two decades in which this general problem could have been averted. At least since 9/11, there has been some recognition in the counterterror community that our laws are not wholly fit for purpose — in particular, that our toolkit is missing something in the area of what used to be treason laws. In America as in Europe, you do not have to wait very long in the legal and counterterror communities for it to be assured that such laws are antiquated, defunct, moribund, or otherwise unusable. But in each case it also tends to be recognized that without something like a treason law (“subversion” or “aiding the Queen’s enemies” in the old adumbration) we cannot answer the specific challenge that people such as Begum and Muthana pose. That we are little nearer answering this predictable challenge is yet another example of the opportunity cost of a political and media class obsessed with what it cannot change and disinterested in what it could.
Those who insist that that such people should simply return and face criminal charges in domestic courts ignore the standards of evidence needed in a court, the difficulty of compiling such evidence, and the endless questions around fair trials, the presumption of innocence, and more. Shabina Begum claims to have merely been an ISIS housewife and seen some heads in bins and so on. The tedious domestic life of the Islamic State. If she played no role in any beheadings, or if there aren’t enough people around to give eyewitness testimony, what should she be prosecuted on? Should she simply be brought back to the U.K. and put through a “deradicalisation” program? To claim she should is to put a vast amount of trust in a program, and a policy, which is far from a science and far from even frequently successful. All this is in a country whose security services are already overstretched with the number of Islamists they would like to keep their eyes on versus the number they actually can afford to keep an eye on.
For what it’s worth, I am not especially torn over whether people like those who went to join ISIS should be allowed back into their countries of origin or not. The age issue with Begum is troubling. The prospect of an expansion of the use of such powers is an undeniable worry. But overriding this is another consideration which I have not seen stressed enough in the debate to date. In the whole debate around Islamist extremism one of the things we have most lacked is strong signals. There is a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville of which I’m fond: “One does not depend on laws to reanimate beliefs that are extinguished. But one does depend on laws to interest men in the destiny of their country.”
Over recent years the message given out from the Western democracies has been, “You can do absolutely anything here. You can mutilate your daughters and we won’t catch you. You can kill girls in your family who have brought you ‘dishonor’ and we won’t much bother to pursue you. You can preach the destruction of our society and we will tolerate you. You can fight for our enemies, and we will tie ourselves in legal knots over how — if at all — we might be able to discipline you afterwards.” I have always thought that the lack of strong signals is one of the strongest possible incentives for Islamist extremism. You can fight for your country, or you can fight for your country’s enemies. If you choose the latter and it all goes fine, you’re in clover. And if it doesn’t, then you can at any point return to the situation you were in when you started off, as though you never made that treasonous choice. In short, the number of negatives is not commensurate with the number of positives.
There are costs to everything in this life. A cost for making bad decisions, and a cost for making the worst ones. Joining ISIS is not an “oops,” but is among the worst decisions anyone of this generation could have made. Our entire value system is not on the line here. Only a couple of generations ago we would have hanged Begum for what she did. Perhaps she should be allowed to live. But not among us.