Do you remember being 15? If I’ve got my sums right, I was in fourth year at school and absolutely, impossibly head-over-heels in love with entirely the wrong boy. A decent guitar player and a passionate fan of The Beatles, he believed he was the next John Lennon. When John Lennon was shot, he began to believe he was Lennon reincarnated. He stopped going to school and started drinking whisky, smoking all sorts and trying to channel the spirit of Lennon. After school he would play me what he had composed that day.
At the time it was exquisite. This young man – only a boy himself, he had just turned 16 – intoxicated me. But when I caught him snogging another girl I came to my senses. I chucked him, cried for a week, then got back to my studies. Only now do I realise what a huge sigh of relief my parents must have let out.
At 15 I thought I knew it all. I thought I was a good judge of character. I thought I was an adult. I thought I was in love – maybe I was? – and that our love would last forever. I’m embarrassed by how naive I was. But I was young and idealistic. And then I grew up.
With the wisdom of age, things are not what they seemed
Was there someone or something you felt just as strongly about when you were 15? And now that you’ve grown up, maybe things are not quite what they seemed? I thought as much. That is exactly why Britain should do what it can to bring home the teenage Islamic State bride Shamima Begum and her days-old son.
At the age of 15, after watching videos of violent beheadings, and other videos showing “the good life that they can provide for you”, the schoolgirl and two of her class-mates travelled to Syria to join Islamic State. Last week she was discovered by a journalist in a Syrian refugee camp and has asked to be brought home to Britain.
This is a story that has torn the nation. Radio Scotland devoted its phone-in to the topic, and I have rarely heard such consensus. It was as if with one voice ‘we’ said she should be left there to rot. Britain should not be a soft-touch to terrorists, was the cry. And it seemed as though the Home Secretary was listening; Sajid Javid insists he will ‘not hesitate to prevent’ her return to the UK.
Was she groomed? Is she a terrorist?
But in my view, he, and the callers to the radio, are wrong. Begum was a child when she left Britain. Was she groomed? We don’t yet know. She joined a terrorist organisation, but was she a terrorist? From the interviews we have seen she seems ignorant of recent attacks. Women in IS are not allowed to fight, although they are encouraged to indoctrinate their children. Her son, born at the weekend, is innocent of all charges, other than that his mother made some catastrophically poor choices at 15.
This is a 19-year-old who has witnessed horror and bloodshed. She claims to have already lost two children. She needs to come home.
No, she shouldn’t be allowed to move back to her family and carry on as if nothing has happened; there must be consequences. Yes, it is unfair that she should get to come home when many others will never have that opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have been displaced, bombed, injured and killed because of the actions of IS and it grates that she should get preferential treatment when she chose to join them. But – she was a child. A child. And although she may claim to have travelled to Syria willingly and understood the consequences of her actions, we know that’s unlikely to be true.
If we don’t bring this one girl back, we miss the opportunity to understand why she went. We also miss the opportunity to learn what she knows about IS; and we leave her – and her son – as the responsibility of another nation.
It’s not easy. Those who lost loved ones in the terror attacks in Manchester and elsewhere will rightly be angered. But another wrong doesn’t turn the clock back.