Why it's wrong to cancel the passports of British Isis fighters

The government should take responsibility for the monsters it had a hand in creating.

Islamic State fighter threatens 'new Pharaoh' Donald TrumpWilayat Raqqa

Like free expression, 'justice' only means something if its advocates are willing to apply it to the most disgusting elements in a society. Everyone is for speaking one's mind or 'the rule of law' when applied to those they agree with, yet most seem inclined to melt away when those principles are applied in any difficult or meaningful sense – i.e. to those who might use them for shocking or subversive ends.

These are good examples of principles which exist more on paper than in practice. The description of politics as 'war by other means' is an acknowledgement of the fact that most of us are willing to cast aside our high-flown ideals if doing so means furthering our own ends. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the principles themselves are not worth striving for, even for one's mortal enemies. Perhaps the best defence against arbitrary and unjust punishment is the possibility that at some point it might be you who receives the knock at the door in the middle of the night.

This all felt especially pertinent this week as it was revealed that the British government has removed the citizenship rights of around 150 suspected jihadists and criminals. According to the Sunday Times, 40 people had their right to a British passport removed this year, 30 of them since March. This represents a substantial increase on the back of enhanced deportation powers introduced by the government in 2014. Prior to that, just 37 people had their British citizenship revoked between 2000 and 2016.

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All of those affected so far have been dual-nationals – i.e. they held a British passport as well as a passport for another country. Some will have lived in the UK since birth, but the fact they have retained another passport sets them at an immediate disadvantage. Removing the passports of those with only British passports would send those on the receiving end into legal limbo, rendering them 'stateless', a situation comparable to medieval exile. A 1961 international convention, signed by the UK, actually forbids states from withdrawing nationality if doing so creates a stateless person.

I find these developments troubling but I suspect I am in a minority. Many if not all of those who have had their British citizenship revoked will have been members of Islamic State. Since 2014, legislation originally conceived to deal with suspected terrorists has had its remit expanded to apply to other criminals too, including those convicted of the sexual abuse of young girls in Rochdale. Few wish to defend the rights of jihadists and sex offenders, and so the imposition of this two-tier system of citizenship has been accepted with little outcry.

But it has troubling implications, not least because to be in possession of a second passport is potentially to be on permanent parole in a society that is supposedly your own. Citizenship comes with certain rights and responsibilities, it is regularly said, but those stipulations seem only to apply to those with more than one passport – there is little risk of a person like myself (white, British, born here and owning a single passport) having my citizenship revoked, however badly I might choose to behave. Indeed, if citizenship does come with certain responsibilities, then they must surely be the same however many passports one has. This seems especially true of those with dual-nationality who were born in Britain.

An Isis fighter with a British accent appearing in a recent propaganda video for the Islamic State

The extra-judicial side of this is even more troubling. Around 500 British nationals have fought with Islamic State since its inception in 2014, and while those individuals are overseas it is impossible to convict them through the usual judicial channels. As with the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, it is enough in theory for the security services to point at a person in Iraq or Syria and say 'terrorist' for that person to lose their right to live here. That mistakes might occur is not inconceivable either: Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen, was held for five years in Guantanamo Bay before being found to be innocent.

The attempt by government to wash its hands of citizens who have behaved monstrously might sound like common sense, but it is a manifestation of the notion that anyone with foreign blood in them is in Britain conditionally and that this right can be snatched back at some point, like the demanding of the return of an old gift from an estranged spouse. It appeals to our understandable revulsion at terrorism, but also to the sorts of people who are forever trying to apply 'loyalty tests' to those who have lived in Britain for fewer than three or four generations.

We should also take responsibility for monsters we had a hand in creating. This is not to resort to arguments about 'root' causes – I do not accept the notion that people go to Syria to take slaves and chop off heads because they are upset about the inhumanity of British foreign policy. But if terrorists grew up in Britain, then Britain is partly responsible for the material and social conditions that have shaped their ideas.

If our society spits out such detritus, then we have a responsibility in making sure it does not end up on the bottom of someone else's shoe.

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