When, four years ago and at the age of fifteen, Shamima Begum first left her family and her country to join a group of religiously-inspired murderers in the Levant, I doubt she expected that her future life would include so many TV interviews.
But that is how she spends her days now the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate has all but collapsed.
Confined, with both IS members and IS victims, to a refugee camp in eastern Syria, Begum has not only come to represent the Islamic State group’s protected and inglorious denouement, but also to stand in as physical representation for some of the difficult questions facing states and societies about what to do next.
Begum was not meant to be the main attraction.
The media circus in the Syrian desert which has accompanied the last few weeks of fighting against ISIS has another intended purpose, one more ripe with portent and happening.
Journalists have trouped in great numbers to Baghuz – a town on the bank of the Euphrates – because that is where the Syrian remnants of the Islamic State group have found themselves beached.
This can be seen, in one sense, in a similar manner to the way this journalistic tribe travelled to Mosul in large numbers three years ago when the battle for that city began. The world’s media sought to document events which contained a sense of something epochal – history playing out in front of their eyes.
But Baghuz is not Mosul. It and the story it typifies are smaller and murkier. The conclusion to the Islamic State has been greatly anticipated and optimistically predicted, but what has come to pass is less a grand finale than a daily search for new things to say.
The obvious problem then presents itself. What happens when the conclusion is inconclusive; when the hoped-for end does not come – or does not prove to be the end?
IS retains its capacity to fight elsewhere, for one. It remains capable of operating with Syria’s deserts and Iraq’s ungoverned spaces; it still retains global reach – no doubt overstated, but nonetheless present. And although policymakers hardly printed playing cards featuring IS leaders’ faces, the fact that some in its hierarchy appear to have melted away, including the self-declared caliph, leaves a situation already lacking the neatness of drama denied its very dramatis personae.
But even taking the above out of consideration, the Baghuz battle has been free of the conclusion many sought.
Instead, journalists spend their days interviewing a few IS members who have left the caliphate’s physical limits and now inhabit nearby refugee camps. Begum is one, and after her initial appearance in an interview conducted by Anthony Loyd of The Times (printed under the headline ‘Bring me home’), Begum has become a feature of the press and of television news.
Loyd may have found her, but Begum is now effective property of the national press en bloc.
It is hardly unreasonable for the British press to question a fellow citizen whose initial disappearance to join the Islamic State became not only a story in its own right but also emblematic of the broader exodus. The way these interviews occur, with one journalist after another interviewing Begum, is an odd spectacle – not only because she seems unaware of the damage her words have done to her case and is blind to the value of silence, but also because, in all the rituals and formulae these encounters have begun to assume, Begum seems more like a bored celebrity doing press for a new film than the willing wife of several warriors for god.
But the oddity of the spectacle is only the beginning. Of more import are the debates these marathon days of interviews spark in Britain and around the world.
Begum’s comments, including her odd self-pity and her apparent unrepentance, have not been received temperately at home. That she has been condemned for her actions is not a surprise; that politicians have competed to make those condemnations sound serious, ditto. More surprising is the extent to which Begum is not so much an emblem of a wider problem as a case unto herself.
Her citizenship was initially debated, then ceremonially revoked – on the tenuous ground that she could be Bangladeshi. Under no circumstances, it seems, will she be either allowed to return to Britain or brought back in captivity to face criminal trial.
Hundreds of British men and women besides Begum travelled to join the Islamic State group. Many were killed in Syria, Iraq, or in transit. But a large number managed to return, and some – including two of the ‘Beatles’ cell whose murders of journalists and aid workers elicited global shock and revulsion – exist in strange limbo, corporeally imprisoned by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces but aimed towards an uncertain destination.
Occasionally, the SDF suggests it might not be able to contain so many foreigners, and that other backs ought to bear some of the load. These complaints are accompanied by threats – some credible, others less concerning – of realising or trading ISIS prisoners rather than caging them indefinitely.
The British press, much like the international media, has treated these concerns with sporadic attention. But even when Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, alleged to have been ‘Beatles’ were interviewed in a comparable setting to Begum, they were not subject to the same hysteria.
After years of tactfully avoiding any talk about ISIS returnees, Britain has decided to strip some of citizenship on the basis of their individual cases. This is a bad outcome, one created by the odd media environment ISIS’ purported final stand has fostered – the end of a caliphate which was, in the West at least, as much a media circus as a geopolitical crisis.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.