The complex reality of radicalisation in Central Asia
An interview with Bhavna Davé, a senior lecturer in Central Asian politics with the department of politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA: Do we have any data on the number of citizens of Central Asian countries currently in the ranks of the Islamic State?
BHAVNA DAVÉ: I think that it is not so easy to compile such data and if you are asking about the exact numbers – I do not know. But to me, the numbers are a secondary issue. It is much more important to define what we mean by radicalisation and how we understand it. Second, we should put the number of Central Asians joining ISIS in perspective, in the context of the number of people from other regions and other countries.
So what does radicalisation mean in the context of Central Asia?
I think that the term radicalisation has been used and abused in many different ways to serve specific political and ideological interests. One key indicator of people from the Central Asian region supporting ISIS is to ascertain the number of people who have left their home or the places where they live in order to join specific transnational movement elsewhere. But of course there are other criteria, such as support for very specific radical interpretations of Islam, which may have a loose relation with Islamic teachings and which find certain solutions and strategies within the context of Islam to address the causes of injustice, corruption, lack of values and morality. If we accept such a definition we can certainly agree that there is a current of radicalisation that is evident across the globe, not only in Central Asia. Central Asia, in my opinion, is no more or less vulnerable to these influences than other regions in the Muslim world. Moreover, we can talk here about Central Asia or about Central Asians living outside of their countries. In Central Asian states, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, there are varying levels of Islam-inspired activities, some of which have taken a radical turn. And the governments of these Central Asian states have taken a very resolute anti-Islamic stance and have been promoting a certain kind of understanding of “good Islam” versus “bad Islam”.
“Good Islam” refers to the specific type of Islam, Muslims, Islamic values and Islamic identities that these governments are ready to accept and promote. Ideologies or ideas that may not necessarily have anything to do with religion, but are seen as a threat or challenge to the government, or something that is not controlled or controllable by the government, easily get labelled as Islam-inspired, radical and extremist. So there is a lot of expedient labelling of different kinds of networks, groups and ideas as extremist or terrorist, which in fact might not be radical at all.
The governments create and apply these labels, which may not correspond to reality. And a lot is being done to undermine any potential for autonomous organisation of groups and to deny people the right to develop identities, ways of worship, religious interpretations that they may prefer. The goal of this all is to maintain control of the regimes and to eliminate the challenges without entering into any dialogue or mediation with the society and the groups concerned.
How do you see the situation in Tajikistan where the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was delegalised in 2015? Muhiddin Kabiri, the party leader who now lives in exile in Europe, argues that there might be a growth in Islamic radicalism in Central Asia as a result of the growing oppression domestically and the weakening of ISIS in the Middle East, which could trigger a return to Central Asia of those people who have been involved with ISIS. Do you agree with his diagnosis?
I agree broadly with this statement. The Islamic Renaissance Party is a well-known political party and for some time it did enjoy significant support. But this party is by no means the main representative of Islamic voices in Tajikistan. There are other groups and movements in place and there is no one organised, centralised Islamic leadership.
Going back to the specific point made by Kabiri, the people fighting for ISIS represent a number of nations and countries, not just Tajikistan or Central Asia. There is a large number of people from Russia, including Chechens, Dagestanis and others, and these far outnumber ISIS fighters with Central Asian background. There are also a lot of people from Western European states, including a significant number of British Muslims. The data from 2015 or 2016 show that there were three to four times more British Muslims fighting for ISIS than Central Asians. In addition, there are people from the Middle East and North Africa engaged in the fight. So the number of people from Central Asia or with a Central Asian background is a minority of those who have been recruited. Many of them who are working in Russia, have already been away from their home country for a while, and lead a transnational life. Thus there is no one specific place for them to go back to. Before joining ISIS, some may have fought elsewhere, in Chechnya, for example. There is a possibility that some might not simply return home, since this is a transnational mobile network which moves in multiple directions, not just between home and one particular battlefield.
But this is not such a straightforward issue. We do not really know what ISIS is, nor do we know the group dynamic or researched the trajectories of people who have been pushed out of the group. It is really impossible to draw any direct or immediate connection between those leaving the ranks of ISIS and a legend of coming home and causing destabilisation in a given country. There may be some danger of that happening but I think that the leader who made that statement was probably trying to urge the international community to pay more attention to what is happening in Tajikistan.
The International Crisis Group’s report on Islamic radicalisation in Central Asia, titled Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalisation, was met with quite a strong reaction within the academic community, which condemned it as offering a simplified vision of radicalisation dynamics in the region. What is your opinion?
I agree with my academic colleagues who have criticised the report and questioned many of its assumptions. There are methodological issues with the report and the questions which were asked. What we should focus on, first of all, is questioning these kinds of straightforward and simplistic assumptions about the increasing number of Central Asians embracing radicalism. We need to look at the connection between the level of education, social status and economic opportunities available to these people as we try to understand the attraction of radical Islamic ideologies. Some of the available research shows that many who have been recruited by ISIS and other networks are not necessarily uneducated, some of them may have received quite decent education. Evidence suggests that is the case with fighters recruited from European countries. In other words, it would be inaccurate to say that only those lacking proper education and opportunities are attracted to radical ideologies.
Secondly, there is no direct link between poverty and attraction to extremist ideology. It is much more complex than that. Yet, the International Crisis Group report made more questionable assumptions as it did not really define what radicalisation means. It tends to accept the state definition of extremism and radicalisation. Central Asian governments position themselves as fighters against radical and extremist Islam, however, at the same time, their own policies, practices and ideologies are fuelling many of these activities. The Crisis Group reporters have used information provided by the state which has an interest in exaggerating the growth of radical activities. Moreover, many of the people interviewed by them also happen to be affiliated with the government and it is in these people’s interest to point the finger at “radical Islamic groups”. They see themselves as combating radical Islamism.
If you look at the accumulated effect of this research, the conclusion suggests that we must do something to strengthen the governments of Central Asia so that they can hold in check radical Islamic groups. The report does not really question the role of the governments in creating these trends. Moreover, some of the people who have been involved in the research lack the appropriate academic training and are ill-equipped to be writing about this issue. One of the purposes of the group is to issue warnings about emerging problems and working out methods of crisis prevention. If there is no proper oversight of such research, some potential threats might become exaggerated.
So if we look at Kyrgyzstan specifically, is there a threat of growing radicalisation or is it just an issue like anywhere else?
Radicalisation is being talked about as if it were a single phenomenon, but in fact it is related to so many different processes, including the nature of the government, its inability to provide welfare and proper education, development, respect for freedoms, as well as security and stability. It is also related to propaganda and the lack of education, the lack of proper knowledge about Islam which is opening opportunities for all kinds of groups with different interests in supporting the growing industry of radical Islam. So radicalisation is a result of many different factors, psychological ones as well. Stress pushes people to look for refuge in response to the false propaganda about what Islam is. I would therefore suggest that we focus on what radicalisation is and how it is taking place rather than whether radicalisation presents a trend. Radicalisation is connected to numerous social, economic and political problems.
That was the problem with the International Crisis Group report. It says that uneducated people living in poverty in underdeveloped areas are more likely to join Islamist groups. In fact, the reality is more complex. You have to look at the specific dynamics of different recruitment groups, people who operate in them and specific recruitment targets. So certainly, in the rural parts of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, there are large numbers of youth without proper education, without proper facilities for education and not really having a clear sense of hope for a better future. Many of them now work in Russia, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult due to a rise in anti-migrant attitudes. Also, the stringent migration legislation in Russia, the corruption surrounding it, in addition to the declining rouble, have led migrant earnings to decrease by around 20 per cent. Since the remittances have shrunk, there are fewer incentives to go to Russia to work.
The number of young people in Central Asia who do not really have many opportunities is growing. Exposure to radical Islamic literature makes them psychologically vulnerable, because the specific interpretation they are exposed to is very narrow. So when it comes to processes leading to radicalisation, targeting the vulnerable youth by radical Islamic activists is clearly a factor. The governments, of course, are trying to combat these activities, but in doing so they also crackdown on some legitimate expressions of Islam and some legitimate societal groups. Thus, it is no longer seen as an effective mechanism for combating the growing influence of radical groups.
What does the recruitment process look like in Russia?
It is mostly in places like Moscow and other large cities. There are recruitment agents operating in mosques and around mosques promoting Islamic literature. Many of these people are multilingual. I myself have been approached by men who spoke very good English in Moscow. They may be of Uzbek, Tajik or Dagestani descent, and speak English, Russian or French. These people are selling and distributing Islamic literature and trying to offer a better way of life to the youth. But the religious institutions are not the only spaces where recruitment takes place. There are also cultural groups, cafés and tea houses, sport clubs, gyms, fitness centres – such encounters can happen anywhere. And of course, there are social media and the internet in general which have been crucial in reaching out to the Muslim youth. There are many extremist websites and Muslims are exposed to messages about Jihadist groups or receive offers to join them. People are specifically targeted, especially via Facebook and social media in the Russian language.
Bhavna Davé is a senior lecturer on Central Asian politics in the department of politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe.