The dialogue surrounding the causes of radicalisation and Islamist extremism is peppered with half-truths, inconsistencies and has a tendency to fall into a particular political narrative. The anti-extremism agenda must remain non-partisan, consistent and recognise the role of the Islamist ideology


Much of the discourse surrounding radicalisation, and the motivational factors in what drives people towards both violent and non-violent Islamist extremism, is infused with half-truths. These narratives, found on both sides of the political spectrum, hold currency for two reasons: they have a factual basis, making them harder to debunk; they cherry-pick particular elements in order to justify their own position. Members of the Left will frequently cite Western foreign policy as the root cause of extremism; the Right will lay the blame on Islam in its entirety for the radicalisation process. But these are half-truths. In discussing the causes of extremism, we must paint the full picture and acknowledge the role of the Islamist ideology.

Painting the full picture: foreign policy and other half-truths

The Left regularly allude to the many ills of Western foreign policy when identifying the root causes of radicalisation and Islamist-inspired violence. They cite the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes, Palestine and the excesses of the Israeli state, Guantanamo Bay and other examples to further reinforce this belief. But while grievances relating to the many mistakes of Western foreign policy are legitimate, it does not provide a satisfactory explanation as to why, for example, Boko Haram would abduct over 200 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok. Or why the media wing of the Al-Khanssaa Brigade would release a deeply misogynistic manifesto for women living in Islamic State’s Caliphate. Or why gunmen would deliberately target cartoonists and Jews in their attacks in Paris. Additionally, this narrative omits examples of Western foreign policy that were put in place specifically to defend Muslim communities, such as NATO’s intervention in the Balkans. While foreign policy decisions can invoke resentment, it is naive to lay the blame for radicalisation on this alone.

Foreign policy decisions often arouse popular anger but it is naive to blame them for militant Islamism.

Conversely, while foreign policy grievances must not be used to justify or excuse acts of violence, poor foreign policy decisions can provide material for charismatic recruiters to exploit and manipulate. Therefore, we must address failures in policy through debate and the rule of law.

In attempting to explain the attraction of the Islamist narrative, factors relating to socio-economics are often invoked. During a discussion on the subject of IS and their appeal, British journalist, Maryam Francois-Cerrah, said:

Poverty and alienation provide structural factors, which draw people to radical messages.

While it is true that many young people often feel disenfranchised from society through lack of opportunity, this narrative fails to cite sufficient evidence in demonstrating the link between socio-economics and extremism, and thus lacks credibility. Francois-Cerrah, when analysing the profiles of certain British foreign fighters, states:

They’re coming from Portsmouth; they’re coming from Cardiff; they’re coming from Aberdeen. They’re not investment bankers from Chelsea, let’s face it.

Given that Aberdeen’s employment rate is currently the second highest in the UK and its GDP per head is within the top 20 of EU cities, Francois-Cerrah inadvertently weakens her own argument. There are also more notable examples in discrediting this link, such as the current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, being a physician by profession and coming from an affluent, Egyptian family.

The notion of socio-economics being a driving force for radicalisation appears to be somewhat of a red herring, but alienation and identity crises are genuine concerns. In tackling these, we must involve ourselves with vulnerable and susceptible members of society.

We can engage with and help vulnerable people through identity crises by showing the absolute compatibility between being Muslim, British, of Nigerian heritage, an Arsenal supporter, LGBT, a soldier or any other aspects that are important to identity.