Neither Shamima Begum nor Sajid Javid should be above the law

In the debate surrounding the young ISIS recruit, one principle stands above the rest: you do not protect the sanctity of the rule of law by breaking it yourself
epa06707178 British Home Secretary Sajid Javid departs a Brexit cabinet meeting in London, Britain, 02 May 2018. British Prime Minister Theresa May is under pressure over her plans for a Customs Union deal with the EU.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

I have plenty of sympathy for those who have none for Shamima Begum. This young woman, British born and bred, might only have been 15 when she left Bethnal Green in east London to join ISIS but that was old enough to be well aware that it is a savage, nihilistic death cult. The only remorse she has shown so far has been to regret that publicising her desire to return to the UK might have been counter-productive. And many will wish she had never received such exposure and notoriety in the first place.

Today, the entire British public is aware of her circumstances, which include being the mother of a blameless young child. You could be completely unmoved by anything about her – even the fact that two more children she had under ISIS died – and still feel that the attempt by the UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid to deprive Ms Begum of her British citizenship is utterly wrong.

There are many reasons to do so, not least that this is an act of naked, shameless populism, so that a Tory who would like to succeed Theresa May as prime minister can reaffirm his credentials as a hardline right-winger. You could argue, as The National's Editor-in-Chief Mina Al-Oraibi did yesterday, that it would be irresponsible for the British government to try to evade dealing with her and trying her for her crimes, particularly as that precedent could create a category of second-class citizens who can be palmed off on other countries with whom they have family links. (Mr Javid claims that Ms Begum can go to Bangladesh, where her parents are from, even though Dhaka is adamant that she does not currently have Bangladeshi citizenship.)

You might think that her return could help the UK authorities better understand the process of radicalisation and that once she came to her senses she could, perhaps, help prevent others making the same mistake. Shiraz Maher, for instance, was once a member of the extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, but is now director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London.

It is also possible that if she is not allowed to go home she will remain committed to ISIS’s dark ideology and could end her days claiming the lives of still more as a suicide bomber.

All of those are perfectly good reasons to oppose the move to strip Ms Begum of UK citizenship. For me, however, one principle stands above them all: you do not protect the sanctity of the rule of law by breaking it yourself.

And let us be clear: what Mr Javid wants to do is against the law. It is illegal to render someone stateless, which is what removing Ms Begum’s citizenship would do. She may be eligible for dual nationality but the Bangladeshi foreign ministry has said that she has never applied for it. "It may also be mentioned that she never visited Bangladesh in the past despite her parental lineage,” read their statement. "So there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh."

What right Britain might have to revoke citizenship in other circumstances is by-the-by. In this instance, it has no such right. And no home secretary, prime minister or other official in Britain, or in any other country, should have the power to decide that what someone has done is so terrible that the law should not apply to them.

For the law, in the end, is the ultimate protection and guarantee of any society. War is governed by laws. The fight against terrorism is also, rightly, governed by laws. One of the many reasons we assert that the campaign against ISIS is just is precisely because its appalling actions demonstrate that it has no regard for the law, and its so-called caliphate is illegal. Indeed, given the Quran’s emphasis on justice, it is doubly important that it is upheld in this fight and in every aspect of it.

The law may be applied lightly, with mercy or even clemency. But to disregard it is to undermine the whole principle that all are subject to it, no one is above it, and none are so low that they should not be governed and, if necessary, punished by it.

It is also hypocritical and offensively high-handed for the British government to try to make Shamima Begum Bangladesh's problem. How would they react if the situation was reversed? Say Ms Begum had been born and brought up in Dhaka and had never visited the UK – but had a British parent through whom she could claim citizenship. If a Bangladeshi government then removed her citizenship and tried to ship her off to London, there would be an outcry to the extent to which it would be simply unthinkable.

The current Conservative government can only get away with it domestically because it is acting as though it is a big power that can still bully smaller, developing countries, perhaps especially if they were once part of the British empire.

The outrageousness of this position will not be lost on the rest of the world. Neither, I suspect, can Mr Javid's move be sustained. He will surely be challenged, and most likely lose, in the courts – and he will deserve to do so. For the law must apply to all – and that includes Sajid Javid just as much as it includes Shamima Begum.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National