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Shamima Begum tells her story in new podcast I’m Not a Monster

Tuesday 17/January/2023 - 04:49 PM
The Reference

The BBC series features testimony from the former Isis recruit and those who know her

“I felt like I was not inside my body, it felt like a dream,” says Shamima Begum of the moment she left the UK to join Isis in 2015. Begum was 15 at the time and, alongside two school friends, she had been recruited by the terror organisation and persuaded to travel to Syria. On the day she left, Begum told her mother she was going to school to do some extra study for her GCSEs: “She walked me to the bus stop, I just stood there with her just being quiet . . . I felt really guilty not giving her a better goodbye, knowing that I would probably never see her again.”

In the BBC podcast I’m Not a Monster, Begum reflects on the circumstances that have led to her current situation: living in a Syrian refugee camp and prevented from returning home after the British government revoked her citizenship. Built around a year of conversations with Begum, along with interviews with those who know her, the series is presented by Josh Baker, an investigative journalist specialising in conflict and terrorism.

Begum, who is now 23, is a lightning-rod topic, as Baker and his team well know. The first and so far only episode features excerpts of news debates and radio phone-ins, aired shortly after Begum was found alive and seemingly unrepentant in 2019, in which she is variously called a trafficking victim, a security risk and a traitor who should “rot in hell”. Baker’s podcast is naturally above such inflammatory language, though the objective is much the same as those phone-ins: to ascertain how we should judge Begum. Predictably, the series has already caused a furore, with assorted media commentators raging at the BBC for giving a platform to a supposed terrorist.

In fact, it is the media, rather than Begum, that comes off looking worst, at least so far. Through the testimony of Salman Farsi, a communications officer at East London Mosque, we hear how Begum’s family were besieged by reporters in the days following Shamima’s disappearance. There is devastating audio from that time of Farsi on the phone to Begum’s older sister: “Don’t cry,” he says, before ending the call and dissolving into tears himself. It is also telling that an old school friend of Begum’s, who calls herself Zara, declines to give her real name to Baker, following her encounters with the press after Begum went missing. “We were bombarded at bus stops by journalists, paparazzi,” she says. “School would have to literally chaperone us on to the buses. That’s how bad it was.”

It’s early days for the series, but the signs so far are of a gripping and nuanced production keen to build a complete picture of Begum based on evidence rather than hearsay. What it can’t avoid, though, is the frothing and fury that erupt elsewhere whenever Begum becomes headline news. I’m Not a Monster’s intentions may be honourable, but ultimately it can only add to the noise.