In stripping Shamima Begum of her citizenship is the UK government manufacturing a citizenship test that only applies to Muslims?

Born and raised in the UK, Shamima Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria to become the wife of a Daesh member. Four years later at 19 years of age, and with Daesh now largely defeated, the widow and her young child are now seeking a return to Britain.

Begum made international headlines in 2015 when she travelled to Syria with two other friends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana.

Turkish media at the time citing security sources pointed to a man, Mohammed al Rashed, purporting to work for the Canadian intelligence services as the person responsible for smuggling the girls into Syria. He was later arrested by Turkish authorities.

While in Syria Begum married Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert to Islam, who is now being held in prison a short distance from his wife. Together, they had three children who have now all died. Tragically her third child, Jarrah died of pneumonia at three weeks old on March 8th. 

The young baby's death, a British citizen, sparked a debate in the UK about the callous way the UK government has dealt with the situation.

A government spokesman in the UK described the death as "tragic and deeply distressing for the family", even as it had made no attempts to rescue the child from a war zone. While the baby's mother, Shamima Begum, was stripped of her citizenship her baby wasn't. The baby's death has sparked deep controversy around the flawed process of stripping people of their British citizenship.

Letter issued by the British government notifying Shamima Begum that her UK citizenship has been stripped
Letter issued by the British government notifying Shamima Begum that her UK citizenship has been stripped (ITV News)

The path to losing citizenship

The British government sent a letter to the Begum family on February 19th notifying them that their daughter had lost her only citizenship. Begum, alone and in the midst of a warzone did not appear to be remorseful when she gave her first international interview, on the contrary, she appeared combative.

The government’s decision - seemingly a reaction to the media - may work well for its electoral base. However, it also has raised a series of questions for Britain’s 2.7 million-strong Muslim community.

Speaking to TRT World Fahad Ansari, a lawyer who currently represents a number of individuals who like Begum have been stripped of their citizenship, believes that the current system of taking citizenship from Muslims “is inherently racist and discriminatory in its application as it can only happen to citizens whose parents are immigrants even if they are born in the UK. It could never happen to a white British citizen for example.”

In November of last year, Ansari and his colleagues successfully argued against the UK government's attempt at making two individuals stateless by revoking their UK nationality.

Since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that the government had stripped more than 37 people of their citizenship.

On the 20th of February, the UK Home Office Minister Sajid Javid told parliament that the powers to strip British nationals of their citizenship have in fact been used more than 150 times, significantly higher than previously thought.

Many widely suspect the main victims of this policy to be people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

It wasn't always so easy to make British citizens stateless. The “War on Terror” as a result of the 9/11 attacks brought about a significant erosion of civil liberties in the UK.

CCTV images issued by the British police showing (from left) Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase walking through security at Gatwick Airport, on their way to Syria.
CCTV images issued by the British police showing (from left) Kadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase walking through security at Gatwick Airport, on their way to Syria. (AP)

Muslims as a suspect community

The first piece of legislation that made this possible was the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002 brought under the Labour government led by Britain's controversial Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The new act contained frighteningly broad language that could deprive British citizens of their citizenship.

The legislation broadened the scope of the powers that would now also strip British-born citizens or those that had gained citizenship by descent.

In 2014, under the Conservative government, there was a further update giving the Home Office new powers that would deprive someone of British citizenship attained through naturalisation even if that made the person stateless.

Provided the home secretary is satisfied “that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person … has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom.”

But what exactly do “seriously prejudicial” and “vital interests” really mean? The terminology is so broad and all-encompassing that it could include a wide array of actions, without the offender understanding what they may run afoul of.

Richard McNeil-Willson, a researcher at the University of Exeter with a focus on counterterrorism, speaking to TRT World, suggests that stripping citizenship is an incremental process that has evolved over the last decade under the Conservative government.

“It represents a longer process of attempting to look constantly tough on terrorism and the supposed causes of terrorism, but because counterterrorism has developed in a racialised context, it is fundamentally targeted at Muslims and minorities,” said McNeil-Willson.

As right-wing sentiment has increased in the UK, the Conservative government, firstly under Prime Minister David Cameron and then under Theresa May, has attempted to portray itself as tough on extremism.

McNeil-Willson explains the ramification of stripping citizenship away from ethnic minorities.

“It destabilises the belief that an individual's citizenship is guaranteed by the UK government, along racial lines – this is only being used on individuals that are from minorities and have some connection, through family heritage, to other [non-Western] countries.”

The anti-terror legislation erected by consecutive governments in the UK has resulted in Muslims being viewed as a “suspect community” with diminished rights.

"As such, minority groups could now see this and think, under counterterror law, which is in many cases racialised and Islamophobic, I can now lose any right to citizenship, to a fair trial and to usual norms of justice,” added McNeil-Willson.

The UK government decision to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship has been described as form of
The UK government decision to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship has been described as form of "medieval exile". ()

CAGE, a UK-based advocacy group that aims to empower those impacted by the “war on terror,” described to TRT World the government's approach to taking citizenship away from its citizens as “structurally racist and is a form of medieval exile.”

A spokesman for CAGE said the approach taken by consecutive governments sends an “alarming message that should the Home Office find you undesirable, as a descendant of parents or grandparents who migrated to the UK, you may find yourself without citizenship.”

For ordinary working Muslims who go about their daily lives the latest drama surrounding Begum will unsettle their place in society. 

Siema Iqbal, a doctor, born and raised in Britain and founder of the UK-based organisation Advancing Voices of Women to tackle Islamophobia, spoke to TRT World about what the government decision to strip Begum of her citizenship could mean for her and others like her.

“I learnt that I am a second-class citizen and could be stripped of my citizenship if someone decides my views or actions are ‘undesirable’,” said Iqbal.

For many people like Iqbal, the question of citizenship should not be conditional. If a British citizen has committed a crime, they should face justice in an open court. However, the current process is secretive, with judgments often given on the basis of secret evidence that even the defence lawyers cannot see or challenge.

“The message from the state was clear and reiterated what my parents used to say: we will never be accepted, and ironically the decision today reinforces the propaganda that Muslims can’t belong in the West. So much for integration policies,” said Iqbal.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to take into account that Shamima Begum's baby has now died. 

Correction: an earlier version of this article said that her husband is dead, he's not dead but alive and in a prison in Northern Syria.