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‘Just three Skittles in a bowl will kill you. Would you take a handful?’ Evidence, public policy and Islamist-inspired violent extremism

Discussions on PolicyRegions

Patterns of PrejudiceJournal abstract
Saggar’s article is concerned with the use of evidence by the UK policy community to tackle Islamist-inspired terrorism. It focuses on how evidence for such terrorism is generated, interpreted and organized, in particular pinpointing the challenges of reliability and prediction facing those with responsibility for tackling terrorism and its associated causes. Counter-terrorism policy is heavily exposed to risks of bias and distortion, but it is also vulnerable to various kinds of institutional group-think and vested interests. This article scrutinizes three such aspects of counter-terrorism evidence-based policymaking. First, there are imperfections in the evidence base, mostly arising from data limitations and practical shortcomings. These include factual gaps in knowledge, difficulties in comparing evidence about Muslims with non-Muslims, methodological weaknesses and difficulties in measuring profoundly subjective feelings about alienation and grievance. Second, the scope of the problem to which policy is addressed (and the policy paradigms that are alluded to) shape the priorities placed on the evidence base. How much weight should be given to evidence about the narrative of oppression or dissent used by extremists? Background oppositional identities are extensively researched and yet policymakers may choose to concentrate instead on factors in the foreground that have to do with actual violent conspiracies. Third, important nuances in the evidence–policy nexus arise from the implicit generalizations that are held by policymakers. Evidence describing the problem of terrorism is better accompanied by an appreciation of (and perhaps evidence about) the behavioural situation of decision-makers and decision-making structures. This involves trade-offs, bargaining and accommodations to carry different constituencies, and has a bearing on the kind of evidence that is used in counter-terrorism. Saggar closes with a discussion of the above distinctions, and concludes that there is a risk of naivety in evidence-based policymaking that is not alive to the politics of radicalization and extremism.

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