Violent extremism in the UK: A plea for evidence-based policy

"If No. 10 says bloody 'evidence-based policy' to me one more time I'll deck them," said Louise Casey, a British government official working in social welfare, back in 2008.

Yesterday, she was asked by Prime Minister David Cameron to head up a "review of ways to boost opportunity and integration in the most isolated and deprived communities" in Britain.

Casey has headed up task forces and commissions on behalf of Labour and Conservative administrations on homelessness, anti-social behaviour, young people and crime, and recently on 'troubled families', often pulling no punches by claiming, for example, that some homeless charities were actually perpetuating homelessness.

She has a reputation for pragmatism and action, which is good, but my plea here to her is that she does endeavour to get more of an evidence base for the government regarding violent extremism.

First of all, there is evidence that there is no simple model of easy-to-spot signs of 'radicalisation' (a kind of 'RADar') that families, universities and schools can spot. The Radicalisation Research Group review of academic literature on the issue shows that "not all radicals are terrorists, nor are all terrorists radicalised before they join their groups". Many foreign fighters were unknown to the security authorities before they went abroad.

Cameron is partially right in that issues such as poverty, unemployment and discrimination are not direct causes of violence, but neither can we escape the fact that many people who commit the violence come from environments that face these issues.

There needs to be more recognition of and building on the evidence that the feeling of alienation and sense of injustice at not having a stake in society are vitally important. Casey's work on social exclusion and troubled families (where she stated that what was missing was love) should help to bring a more nuanced appraisal.

Cameron states that young Muslims are "grappling with issues of identity, neither feeling part of the British mainstream, nor part of their parents' culture". This is debatable and the focus on the Muslim population in Britain misses an opportunity to talk and discuss the flipside of this argument, which is: why, as a society, do we appear uncomfortable with multiple identities? Why can't a young British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, who is born in Preston, be accepted if they feel British, Pakistani and a 'Prestonian', depending on the circumstances?

The rhetoric of 'British values' is not always helpful, and is symptomatic of the often alienating approach of successive governments towards the Muslim community, as are the calls for 'the Muslim community' to do more. A Muslim colleague emphasised to me that the Muslim population in the UK does not have the same infrastructure and hierarchy as, for example, the Church of England. There are very few resources for training of imams compared with clergy, and no imams that have a voice in the political institutions – by comparison, there are 26 bishops and archbishops in the House of Lords. The non-Muslim population has to consciously recognise the difference.

Since 2013, the so-called Islamic State has reportedly increased the number of training camps, but we also have to get away from the notion that those radicalised have been brainwashed by IS from afar. The evidence available is that it is peer relationships that are the primary factor, and the internet a confirming process. However, attempts to close down spaces for dialogue (however repugnant the views expressed), and the government trying to control counter narratives to radical discourses, risks being self-defeating if not accompanied by an effective engagement strategy.

Cameron’s speech was far clearer on what he plans to do to stop people doing the things they are doing to radicalise and recruit, but much less clear on how to engage people and recruit them to moderate views and values. We need to open up more spaces where young people in particular can air their views and explore how they can be active, radical and peaceful – Casey has an opportunity to ensure they are listened to.