Malachi O’Doherty: Frustration, not poverty, explains British jihadis

As in Northern Ireland, rebels represent a generation with higher expectations

Aa masked jihadi mocks British prime minister David Cameron in a purported Islamic State video. Photograph: PA

Aa masked jihadi mocks British prime minister David Cameron in a purported Islamic State video. Photograph: PA

 

The poor don’t rebel; they don’t have the energy or the time. And they don’t have the money.

Recently on Andrew Neil’s politics show on the BBC an ardent journalist from a largely Muslim housing estate tried to argue that young British Muslims were becoming jihadis because they were poor and disadvantaged.

Neil slapped him down over and over again by citing examples of Islamist bombers and radicals who were not poor at all, who came from middle class families and who, had they stayed at home would have prospered.

Yet instinctively one feels there must be a connection between social disadvantage and the need some feel to get out there and start killing. It can’t just be psychopathic bloodlust.

Having grown up in Northern Ireland and worked as a journalist I have met many people who have killed.

I have friends who have killed.

Some tried to kill but failed and now profess themselves relieved at that.

Many people retrospectively endorse what the IRA did because they can’t imagine that apparently decent and genial people once committed atrocious murders for no good reason. The very fact of their being civilised and friendly becomes evidence of the justice of their cause.

Subject that rationalisation to the kind of rigour that Andrew Neil applied to the poverty argument and up pop the contradictions again.

What about the IRA members who had a university degree, who lived in nice houses, who had the safety net of a welfare system and grant system in 1970 that was better than the one we have today?

What about the fact that the upsurge of street protest that turned violent was led by students, teachers, young professionals, many of whom turned away when the guns came out. Look at the old photographs of them rioting in in Derry in their Sunday best.

True, there were a lot of people having it hard but they were not the first to take to the streets and might never have done so had others not moved first.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were not unemployed; on the contrary, they gave up their jobs to devote themselves to republican struggle.

And they did this fifty years after the partition of Ireland, the great evil that supposedly justified the IRA campaign.

What then took them so long? How come two generations had endured discrimination and sectarian disadvantage and not revolted?

Life in 1970 wasn’t worse than life in 1930; it was an awful lot better.

And that raises the question of what it is about the improvement of conditions for people that may make them more, not less rebellious.

What happened in Northern Ireland to trigger the original civil rights agitation was that educated young people hit a glass ceiling.

It is almost the same thing that triggered the feminist revolution around the same time. Women would not have been demanding equal pay if they had not been working, and in previous generations they hadn’t. In Belfast and Derry, the first generation to benefit from free education was finding that it might not be all that much use to them because jobs were handed out within cliques.

And there were Catholic cliques as well as Protestant cliques.

Mitchel McLaughlin, outgoing Sinn Fein Speaker in the Assembly, has spoken of how the church talked his father out of sending him to the grammar school, though he had passed his 11 plus, to preserve a place there for a boy from a more favoured family.

Rage comes stronger when expectations are frustrated than when there are no expectations in the first place.

Not that the terrorist or revolutionary ever explains rage in those terms.

Then trouble, once started, finds its momentum in grief and revenge. Grievances accumulate and the whole thing gets harder to stop.

At the end of the Troubles, the settlement seemed bewildering slight compared to the demands of the bombers at the start of it. New demands, like an Irish Language Act, were even imported to beef out the threadbare list of injustices suffered.

The solution was ultimately not to give the IRA what it asked for but simply to give it respect and to end discrimination, and to police more gently.

The lesson is that, in trying to understand why intelligent young men and women take themselves off to live in the squalor of Raqqa, we should ask what they expect there that they no longer expect at home. And the answer might just be a sense of belonging.

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