I understand why Anthony Lloyd of the Times, who broke the Shamima Begum story after encountering the 19-year-old so-called ISIS bride in a refugee camp, wrote afterwards: “Her lack of remorse? Her lack of regret? The failure to apologise? Her acceptance of the beheadings of journalists and aid workers? I was not surprised by any of it.”
In interview, Begum, who left Bethnal Green as a schoolgirl in 2015 to join the Islamic State, comes across as a wholly radicalized personality. She speaks in a monotone. Her heavy-lidded eyes are curiously dullened. Everything is banality. Heads in a bin “didn’t faze me at all” she told Lloyd.
When asked by the BBC’s Quentin Somerville what she thought about the Manchester bombings, she said: “It’s a two-way thing. “Their [the Jihadist’s] justification was that it was retaliation so I thought that is a fair justification”, she added.
Nothing in the way of reflection really – they thought so, so I did too.
Then, asked what British values are, she replied: “Going to school… having family there”, simply the facts of her life as a fifteen-year-old girl, nothing more.
Somerville prompts her: “Democracy? Freedom of speech? Rights for women? Rights for homosexuals? All of that?”
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And she nods along – yup, yup, yup, yup, yup.
When you encounter a Jihadist (and Jihadism) close up, it feels like being close to a void, a total non-entity, like something ineffable has been stripped out.
There are parallels with those who suffer from P.T.S.D – an unbreakable event has consumed the sufferer’s imagination, the sufferer’s memory – and those who cannot sleep with the lights out thirty years after the war, those who cannot go to a restaurant without seeing “Gooks” all around.
But Islamic State’s ideology is a belief system that deliberately empties the world of meaning. It defines itself against all human history. It constructs itself outside culture, and what’s left is nothing but banality.
In the third edition of the Islamic State’s in-house English language magazine Dabiq (it ran for fifteen editions between 2014 and 2016), you can read that Jihadists coexist in Iraq and Syria “in spite of the fact that they did not have any common nationality, ethnicity, language, or worldly interests… This phenomenon is something that has never occurred.”
The text continues – in the Islamic State, there are “different colors, languages, and lands: the Najdi, the Jordanian, the Tunisian, the Egyptian, the Somali, the Turk, the Albanian, the Chechen, the Indonesian, the Russian, the European, the American and so on.”
Dabiq’s second edition is entitled “The Destruction of Shirk”. In the history of early Islam, Shirk was a gloss term for a figurative imagery, which was treated with vague suspicion (an anxiety shared, incidentally, by all three monotheisms), as well as idolatry and the crime of association with other beliefs.
Islamic tribes would therefore be differentiated from the other religious influences that flowed through the Arabian peninsula at that time, polytheists, Jews, Christians, the itinerant followers of all kinds of hybrid mysticisms.
In Dabiq, Shirk means something slightly different – human culture tout court. The centrepiece of “The Destruction of Shirk” is a glossy set of photos of the destruction of various shrines in Palmyra, like “The Grave of The Girl”, a site of local cult practice, which was found at the centre of the city.
But there is no explicit comment on whether The Grace of The Girl qualifies as an explicitly idolatrous object, no theological justification whatever. Its destruction is registered simply as an ever-present obligation for all Jihadists at all times in all places.
I saw this kind of blankness in Begum’s face too. This is why she must be allowed to return home. The British state must show that the ideology which seduced her is totally wrong, that change is possible in the world even for the Jihadists who deny it.