“I just want forgiveness really, from the UK” Shamima Begum told the BBC earlier this week from a refugee camp in Northern Syria where she now lives with her new born child. A day later, however, her plea for forgiveness was roundly dismissed when the Home Secretary announced he was stripping her of her British citizenship.
Ever since the former ISIS bride from Bethnal Green was discovered by a Times journalist she has been condemned for showing too little remorse; her seemingly self-serving request to return to the UK winning her few supporters. The tenor of the discourse around her fate continues to centre around the rights and wrongs of rehabilitation for a young woman who still seems largely unrepentant. Judging from the torrent of criticism and abuse she has received on twitter and within the comment pages of the tabloid press, people it seems would far rather see her rot in Syria than forgive her.
The question, as to whether forgiving the harmer gives permission for the abusive behaviour to continue, has always been fundamental to the forgiveness debate and it is little wonder that Shamima Begum’s plea for forgiveness had done her few favours.
When wrongdoers fail to sincerely apologise or offer half-hearted sentiments of regret, we are quick to condemn. We rarely ask why this might be. Perhaps, for example, Shamima Begum had no choice but to speak in such a dispassionate way knowing her words would be amplified round the world for all – including ISIS – to judge. Perhaps she has lost her capacity for empathy and remorse through trauma and systematic brainwashing. And it could be argued that having no empathy, or a limited capacity for regret, leaves an individual “blind” to the impact of their actions, and therefore deserving more of sympathy than punishment.
Remorse, after all, could be viewed as a muscle which like any muscle needs exercising.
I remember Ian Paisley Jr. saying in 2017 at the death of the Irish Republican leader Martin McGuiness: “It’s not how you start your life that’s important, it’s how you finish it”. He was echoing the sentiments of his late father, Rev. Ian Paisley, who when asked how he could possibly be so friendly with his onetime enemy and former IRA leader (McGuiness had shown no remorse) stated unequivocally: “Remorse should be measured by how you live your life now”.
Shamima Begum should be allowed home.
Yes, to be subjected to the due process of law but also to be successfully rehabilitated and given the opportunity to exercise her remorse muscle. It’s important to demonstrate that the United Kingdom believes in what the criminologist Shadd Maruna said of those within our criminal justice system. “Societies that do not believe that offenders can change will get offenders who do not believe that they can change.”
For those of us sharing the stories of people who have in previous roles committed or sanctioned acts of violence, the dilemma is always how far can we pursue a debate around understanding and forgiveness without gravely offending those who have been hurt the most. At The Forgiveness Project the way we choose to do this is to share the stories of perpetrators who have transformed their aggression into a force for peace alongside the stories of victims who have chosen reconciliation over recrimination, forgiveness over revenge.
These stories demonstrate how forgiveness and reconciliation can mend broken hearts and repair fractured relationships, both on a personal and societal level. Stories of former perpetrators do not make violence more palatable but rather help us understand under what circumstances ordinary citizens resort to supporting hateful ideologies, and what might be done to prevent it.