Response to ISIS Brides

The full version of this article first appeared February 28, 2019 at Christianity Today as “Should ISIS Brides Be Treated Like the Prodigal Son?”

N. T. Wright, the esteemed theologian and former Anglican bishop, recently offered brief reflections on the case of Shamima Begumthe British teen now seeking to return home after joining ISIS in 2015—in a letter to the editor of The Times of London.

He wrote that “as a tax payer” he couldn’t fault a previous writer who warned against letting Begum come back, but “as a Christian I cannot help reflecting that if Jesus had thought like that he would never have told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which neatly marks out his teaching both from Islam and from the cold logic of secularism.”

Like Begum, American Hoda Muthana also left her home in Alabama to become an ISIS bride. Both face major government resistance as they seek to leave Syria, with the UK revoking Begum’s citizenship and the US refusing to admit Muthana, saying she never was entitled to citizenship in the first place.

CT asked scholars from the UK, US, and the Middle East: Does Jesus’ memorable parable of forgiveness inform how we treat prodigal daughters who once signed up for a jihadist group?

Shamima Begum in front of her tent. Photo from This Day.

Wissam al-Saliby, World Evangelical Alliance advocacy officer working with the United Nations:

The Prodigal Son is not about the son but about the father’s endless love. As such, governments and nations do not have the same relationship with their citizens as the Father does with human beings. The latter is characterized by endless love. Also, in one media account, Begum said that she doesn’t regret going to Syria to join ISIS whereas Muthana said that she deeply regrets doing so.

However, the Western world still considers that its values are Judeo-Christian. Such values include forgiveness and reconciliation—not vengeful rejection, which is the message transpiring when the UK rejected the return of a teenager who lost two children and just delivered a third, and the US refused to allow the one-time college student back.

In Lebanon, I heard stories of conversion from jihadist ideology as a result of the churches that served Syrian refugees and demonstrated God’s incarnate love. Among Arab governments, that hasn’t been the case. Jordan executed a pair of al-Qaeda prisoners (albeit on death row) as a direct response to ISIS executing a Jordanian pilot. This is vengeance. Which raises the question: What values do Western nations and their ruling elite embody?

Martin Accad, chief academic officer at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon:

I am not sure I agree to compare Begum to the prodigal son. It is clear in the parable that the prodigal son was “repentant” and came to his father for forgiveness, believing he did not even deserve it. In Begum’s case, according to reports in The Guardian, she is not repentant and only wants to return to give birth to her child and receive government support. This is quite an abusive position, very different from the parable of Jesus.

On the other hand, I find the UK government position quite repulsive for a number of reasons. First of all, if stripping Begum of her citizenship renders her stateless, then this is against international law and would not be acceptable. Though there is reason to believe that she could claim Bengali citizenship because of her family descent, she was born in the UK and has no personal direct network of family to make a new life in Bangladesh.

This brings me back to my initial intuition, which is that given that Begum was born in the UK, she is really a UK problem. Her radicalization did not take place in Bangladesh or Syria or Iraq but in the UK. How absurd that the UK authorities now want to make her someone else’s problem! I believe she should be allowed back in the UK and subjected to British prosecution according to the laws of the country where she was born and grew up. I understand that this might be a legal nightmare and that the British government has so many similar cases that it does not know what to do with them. But this is their problem, and they must bear responsibility for homegrown extremism and draw the necessary lessons from it.

Read the full article at Christianity Today.

About Wissam al-Saliby

Wissam al-Saliby earned a Master’s degree in International Law with specialization in Protection and Human Security in 2006 from the Law Faculty of Aix-Marseille University, Aix-en-Provence, France. Wissam is an advocacy officer in Geneva with the World Evangelical Alliance, speaking to the UN and other policy bodies about human rights from an Evangelical perspective. He formerly served as the Development and Partner Relations Manager at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and has significant experience as a trainer in and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East. You can follow Wissam on Twitter @lebanonesia.