In 2015, the images of three London schoolgirls passing through airport security on their way to Syria were all over the news for weeks.
At that time, I was working in another secondary school in East London, just down the road from where Shamima and her friends went to school. A large majority of our students were British Muslims of Bangladeshi heritage, like Shamima.
As staff, we knew that we should be looking out for any pupils who may have been showing signs of becoming ‘radicalised’. However, it came as something of a shock in 2013 when one of our students went missing the summer after he had left school.
I questioned myself about whether I should have noticed or somehow known what he was planning
As the new term started there were appeals in assembly and requests by the police and family for information. And then a call came to one of his friends: he was in Syria, and had no intention of ever coming back.
“Life is better here,” he told them.
He was a quiet and genuinely pleasant student, and it was it was very upsetting when I was told several months later that this boy had sadly died in Syria while fighting for one of the rebel groups.
His story was not unique. Many schools and colleges around the country were struggling with the same issues and wondering how to deal with the problem of teenage radicalisation.
I questioned myself about whether I should have noticed or somehow known what he was planning. As a Christian, I faced a wake-up call reminding myself that each opportunity and moment of interaction with others is precious and valuable. Had anyone ever shared the gospel message of love and forgiveness with this young man?
Fast forward a few years, and new images of Shamima Begum are being shared by media channels worldwide. Now a young mother in a refugee camp in a remote part of Syria, she longs to come back to the UK for the sake of her new-born baby. Voices and opinions are loud and varied regarding what should happen to her and her son, most seeming to agree with the decision to revoke her citizenship and forbid her from returning.
While Shamima’s story has received the most attention, available data from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation reveals that in fact there are known to be over 4,000 other foreign women like Shamima, who married ISIS fighters and may now want to return to their home countries. At least 730 infants from 19 countries have been born inside IS territory.
The governments involved have crucial decisions to make about how to deal with potential returnees from Syria. I may not be able to influence these political decisions, but as a Christian, I need to wrestle with my own heart attitude when I hear stories about ‘ISIS brides’ and so-called ‘evil terrorists’.
There are known to be over 4,000 other foreign women like Shamima, who married ISIS fighters and may now want to return to their home countries. At least 730 infants from 19 countries have been born inside IS territory
I have been meditating on Micah 6:8, where God reveals his desire for his people: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Firstly, God requires justice. My feeling is that to allow Shamima to return to the UK, including facing trial and any necessary consequences in the court of law, would be a truer expression of justice than banishing her to remain in a refugee camp without any trial or possibility for rehabilitation.
While emphasising the need for just actions, God also reminds us to “love mercy”. Many years ago, in very different circumstances, another woman and her young son were banished to a lonely place. Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, couldn’t even bear to look at her son because she didn’t want to see him die. As she was crying in the wilderness, God revealed his loving mercy: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is! ...Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink” (Genesis 21:17,19).
What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God
I love this beautiful picture of God’s love, as he provides water and brings life in a place of certain death. It reminds me that God hears the cries of hurting women and children, and longs to reveal himself to them.
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Whatever our opinions about Shamima’s actions and those of others like her, we should remember that God’s desire is for us to be motivated by a love for mercy. Mercy rushes in, silencing protests of “But she doesn’t deserve it!” and “Too late! She made her choice!”, because this is exactly what mercy is – undeserved!
My prayer is that many like Shamima, who have been indoctrinated into extremist ideologies, would have their eyes opened to see the water of God’s mercy that is available to bring them life.
Hannah Fox currently lives in Manchester and works for an education charity. She is part of Harpurhey Community Church.