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{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

Britain, in recent days, has had a rare distraction from its seemingly endless Brexit debate. The distraction, however, has not been an altogether welcome one. It involves the case of Shamima Begum, one of a number of girls who left their school in Bethnal Green in London in 2015 to go and join ISIS.


Back then, in 2015, the story of the Bethnal Green schoolgirls was headline news. Many British people were genuinely shocked that anyone — let alone young women at the start of their lives — would find ISIS’s promise of a Caliphate so alluring that they would leave the comforts of their friends, family and country in the UK to go to join the group. There was much national debate about this. Various people, including some of the girls’ family members, blamed the British police and security services for not stopping the girls from leaving the UK. Ironically, the people who blamed the police — including the lawyer representing the girls’ families — were often precisely the same people as those who had spent previous years urging Muslims in Britain not to cooperate with the British police. How exactly the British police were either to blame, or to find any way to ‘win’ in such a situation, was never explained. It was just one of many paradoxes thrown up in these circumstances.

Now, members of the British media have caught up with Shamima Begum, who is living in a Syrian refugee camp. The interviews she has given, in which she has expressed no remorse for her actions and has described life in the Caliphate — which included seeing severed heads in trash cans — as not especially troubling, have not helped her in her request to return home to Britain. The general public has reacted badly to her self-pity and lack of remorse; and British politicians have — unusually — responded to the public mood. Specifically, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that he is stripping Begum of her British citizenship. It is a move which is not just unprecedented but certain to bog him down in legal action for a while to come.

What is most interesting is the debate about whether Begum should be allowed to return and whether the Home Secretary was right in this unprecedented action. It is at times such as this that we are able to measure any change in the public and political debate.

What is striking and controversial are the repeated interventions into the debate made by the government’s own ‘extremism commissioner’, Sara Khan. Over recent years, Khan has been a hugely admirable figure. The founder and leader of the women’s group ‘Inspire’, Khan has shown a generation of British people — including, most importantly, young Muslim women — that it is possible to be resilient against the fanatics in their faith and also to argue for the rights of women. She has been an unarguable force for good, and has had to withstand appalling pressure from Islamist groups in the UK.

When Khan was appointed to her present official position last year (after the three terrorist attacks in Britain in 2017) the announcement annoyed all of the right people. Only the length of time the commission had taken to be appointed and that Khan promised to spend at least a year scoping out the nature of extremism in the UK were causes for concern. If the problem was so urgent — as the Prime Minister had intimated after the London Bridge terror attack — why did it take over half a year to appoint a commissioner to look into extremism, and why would that commissioner then announce at least another year of nothing happening in order to ‘scope out’ the problem? That is almost two years lost just there.

Khan’s relative silence since then has made her repeated interventions in the Begum story especially noteworthy. In a piece in the Sunday Times as well as a subsequent comment to The Times and other media, Khan has insisted that Begum must be allowed to come back to the UK. Not only, Khan has argued, does Begum have this right, but Britain would be ‘abandoning our values’ if we did not allow her back.

This is, it must be said, an exceptionally complex and fine legal — as well as moral — issue. Decent people from all sides can disagree over what to do with someone in Begum’s case. There is one element, though, of Khan’s argument that has gone particularly unnoticed and is particularly disturbing. In her Sunday Times piece Khan argued that, “Far-right and Islamist agitators alike will use the case of Shamima to create a wedge between and within communities.” And well they might. In making this argument, however, the UK government’s extremism commissioner perhaps unwittingly demonstrates a slippage that has occurred in Britain in just over a decade.

In 2006, a small group of peers, MPs and Islamist groups sent an open letter to the then-Labour government. The signatories included the subsequently jailed Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, the subsequently disgraced (over expenses fraud) Baroness Uddin and the then-MP, now Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. This letter suggested to the UK government of the day that British foreign policy “risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.” This is a commonly heard argument of course, and is especially commonly heard from various Islamist groups. What is noteworthy about this, and what makes it worth dredging up, is not the argument but rather the response to the argument.

Back in 2006, then-Home Secretary John Reid was having none of this. He described the letter as a “dreadful misjudgement.” No competent government would remain in power, he said, if its policies were “dictated by terrorists.” The former Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, backed John Reid, saying at the time that the letter had given “ammunition” to extremists. Howard went on:

“It is, I think, completely misconceived to suggest that we should change our foreign policy because it might cause some people to take up arms against us. That’s a form of blackmail and I think that letter was completely misconceived.”

So, it is only a few years since there was agreement from across the Conservative and Labour benches that such arguments should not merely be rejected but should be ignored. Sara Khan is certainly no Islamist, or any type of sympathiser with extremism. Far from it. In recent days, nonetheless, she has shown herself willing to deploy the argument that we must be careful what we do lest we offend extremists. Thirteen years ago, this argument was dismissed by Labour and Conservative MPs alike. Today, it would most certainly be deployed by the leadership of the present Labour party — even though that view is being pushed back against by the present Conservative Home Secretary. Yet, it is a sign of a wider slippage that, in 2019, such an argument would be deployed not by an Islamist, but by the government-appointed figure whose task is to tackle extremist Islam. It is in small slips such as this that a wider societal backsliding can be discerned.