On 4 April 2019, ‘Extremism prevention. Successes and difficulties’, an international practical and scientific conference at the Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan) was organised by the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KAZISS) and the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC).
The event was attended by experts from Kazakhstan, Russia, and the republics of Central Asia. The total number of participants was about 100 people.
The nature of the phenomena of radicalism and extremism, the main drivers of radicalisation, and different modes of violent extremism in the post-Soviet space – with a focus on Russia and Central Asia – were analysed. The key factors affecting the emergence of extremism, circumstances that increase or, on the contrary, inhibit the process of radicalisation, were considered. Participants discussed successes and failures in fighting extremism, methods of prevention, and, finally, suggested some recommendations for civil society and state institutions responsible for countering this challenge.
KAZISS Director Zarema Shaukenova spoke about the urgency of the problem of extremism for Kazakhstan, mentioning, in particular, that 47 Kazakhstan citizens have been returned from Syria over the past few years. She also spoke about implementation of the national countering-extremism strategy.
DOC Chief Researcher Alexey Malashenko, in his opening remarks, emphasised that the rise of extremism came as a surprise to most experts, even though it took place over a couple of decades. According to his forecast, extremism’s growth trend will continue, at least in the short term. He drew attention to the fact that at least 30,000 foreign extremists have been involved in the Syrian crisis, and a significant portion of them have been fighting for ideological reasons, not for money. According to Malashenko, while studying the problem of religious extremism, it is necessary to take into account the fact that hundreds of millions of people in the Islamic world believe in the idea of an Islamic state. This belief is fuelled by economic difficulties, among other things, and can be aggravated by so-called ‘primitive prohibitions’. Alexey Malashenko finished by posing a question to the audience: ‘What is the difference between radicalism and extremism?’
Within the first panel on the essence of radical and extremist phenomena, KAZISS Chief Researcher Lesya Karataeva spoke about the peculiarities of the terminology in this area. One of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to find a definition of either extremism or radicalism that is acceptable for everyone. These terms are often understood intuitively. One of the reasons for difficulties in the definition of these concepts is that representatives of several fields are engaged in the study of the issue: history; sociology; religious studies; and cultural studies. Karataeva pinpointed the importance of keeping in mind that radicalisation often occurs at the individual level.
She identified several ‘push factors’ for radicalisation:
- Totalitarian government
- Violation of civil rights and freedoms
- Lack of social mobility means (especially significant for youth)
- Low level of education and lack of critical thinking
The following key ‘pull factors’ for radicalisation were indicated:
- Influence of charismatic personalities
- Use of attractive symbols (for example, the Caliphate image)
- Imitating role models
Recruiters for extremist organisations usually focus on individual contact, whereas counter-extremism focuses on working with the masses, which is significantly less effective.
According to Karataeva, it is crucial to single out three focus groups in countering extremism:
2) Women (in this group, there are several kinds of motivation at work: social, economic, religious; and coercion);
Alexey Grishin, president of the Religion and Society Information and Analytical Center, drew attention to the fact that extremism studies are often complicated by scientists’ fears of spoiling their relations with government bodies and fears of being accused of promoting extremism while demonstrating their research findings.
Grishin underlined that a lot of terrorists share a belief that is rarely mentioned in the public space, namely that they do not fundamentally differ from those who contend with them, except for possessing recognised political institutions. It is necessary to work on the refutation of this thesis.
Grishin also listed the shortage of Islamic scholars at all levels of state governance in Russia among a category of problems contributing to the success of Islamists. Islamism, in his opinion, is the criminal use of the Islamic religion. One of the weaknesses in the implementation of extremism-prevention measures is the problem of training personnel. In order to resolve this, it would be necessary to develop a unified approach within the entire CIS area.
Grishin presented his assessment of the ‘Social doctrine of Russian Muslims’ document, which, in his opinion, contains a lot of radical ideas in hidden form.
Imomnazar Khoknazar, deputy head of the Foreign Policy Analysis Department at the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, spoke about the unique circumstances of combating extremism in Tajikistan. These include the regional neighbourhood, with an unstable Afghanistan across one border; a high percentage of young people in the population; and the strengthening of political Islam in the country.
Meirgul Alpysbayeva, a national specialist at the UNESCO Education Program Cluster Office in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan spoke about the activities of UNESCO in countering extremism. UNSESCO focuses on promoting principles of human rights and the addressing the problem of education; in this context, the concept of ‘preventive power of education’ is used. One of the goals is fostering global citizenship, which is thought to reduce the risks of extremism.
Participants in the second panel focused on the characteristics of violent extremism in the post-Soviet space. Alexander Yarkov, leading researcher at the Expert Scientific Center for Countering the Ideology of Extremism and Terrorism at the Tyumen State University, drew attention to Islamisation of officer corps in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. In this regard, he argued, it is necessary to work with this segment of the population, as well as with the group of potential ‘decision-makers’ as a whole. Particularly important is the work on countering extremism carried out in cross-border zones. To increase the effectiveness of the work being done, Yarkov recommended the formation of a unified list of prohibited literature, given that state expertise is provided. It would also be advisable to include representatives of state bodies. as well as various religious denominations, in respective task forces.
Yarkov also mentioned an emerging ghetto problem as one results of ongoing processes of migration in the Russian Federation, as well as the emergence of prison jamaats, which represent an example of a closed society.
Bakhtiyar Babadzhanov, director of the Islamic Studies Research Center of the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, shared some results of his analysis of re-Islamisation processes in Central Asia, which, in his opinion, are characterised by spontaneity and unpredictability. At the same time, re-Islamisation often looks like the political revenge of theologians in relation to the state atheism of the Soviet period. The fact that many theologians received their education outside the region also imposes a special character on the process. At the same time, the Muslim theologians of Central Asia as a whole oppose violent extremism.
Babadzhanov drew attention to the fact that the personal and social elements in Islam are not clearly separated from each other. In addition, there is a very specific problem: Islam sometimes becomes an alternative to civil and national identification. To reduce the risks arising from this, it is necessary to develop a legal culture in Islam. Besides that, promoting a reasonable awareness of the cultural achievements of Islam throughout human history would be helpful in reducing extremism.
Babadzhanov noted that a key factor in the vitality of an extremist organisation is its finances.
KAZISS Chief Researcher Irina Chernykh emphasised that in the study of the phenomenon of violent extremism, it is difficult to work out a single, universally accepted classification. In developing a response to the challenge of extremism, it is necessary to formulate counter-narratives that impact a mass audience. She also drew attention to an increasing trend of securitisation of problems related to violent extremism, terrorism, and Islamism.
KAZISS Senior Researcher Anastasia Reshetnyak presented the results of an analysis of the composition of Kazakhstan civil servants dealing with issues of violent extremism and terrorism.
The third panel, dedicated to countering and preventing extremism, started with a report by associate professor of the Kyrgyz State Law Academy, Nurgul Esenamanova, who spoke about a classification study of convicts for terrorism and extremism in Kyrgyzstan. According to her approach, this group of convicts is to be divided into five categories: violent extremists; ideologically motivated; accomplices (indirectly implicated); those who are repentant; and a fifth category – those not amenable to definition.
The head of the Sociological and Image Research Program at the Institute of World Economy and Politics at the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy, Serik Beysembayev, shared statistics on violent extremism in Kazakhstan. Over the past seven years, 16 acts of violent extremism have been registered in the Republic, more than 800 people have been imprisoned for extremism and terrorism, and more than 500 people have left the country for the combat zones of Syria and Iraq. In conclusion, Beysembayev spoke about methods of preventing violent extremism in Kazakhstan, including, inter alia, awareness-raising activities, producing documentaries, articles, organising meetings in various formats, as well as personal conversations.
Alexey Starostin, Vice-President of the Center for Ethnic and Confessional Studies, Prevention of Extremism and Countering the Ideology of Terrorism, presented information on the work of creating a list of relevant books in the Center for state bodies. He also shared some details on the recent phenomenon of ‘prison jihad’, whereby propagandists of extremist ideas go to jail intentionally to radicalise other prisoners. Therefore, Starostin argued, when undertaking measures against extremism in prisons, one of the main tasks should be ensuring that other convicts do not fall under influence of extremists.
Murat Laumulin, chief researcher at KAZISS, touched upon terminological issues, noting that there are 68 definitions of terrorism out there among scholarly researchers. The lack of a clear and universally accepted definition of terrorism makes it much more difficult to combat it. Moreover, in determining who is a terrorist and who is not, subjective motives often prevail.
As Laumulin noted, one of the root causes of radicalisation is the “village reconquista over the city”, a process containing, among other components, elements of “cultural demodernisation”. Another feature of this process is the ubiquitous growth of the individual terrorism threat in recent years, with Anders Breivik being the most famous example. According to Laumulin, there certain pathologies uncontrollably lead people suffering from them to commit acts of violence. In this sense, it is impossible to get rid of the violent extremism problem completely.
During the following discussion, Alexey Malashenko made a similar observation: When fighting violent extremism, one should remember that the problem is ineradicable, and the final victory is unattainable. Speaking about the nature of extremism, he added that social protest often manifests itself in religious forms, the most striking example being the Arab Spring. External forces, as a rule, intervene in this process later, coming to ground already prepared. He drew attention to the fact that in current conditions, religions are often exploited in the interests of certain ideologies and political practices. In conclusion, Malashenko noted that the widespread belief among some Muslims in the possibility of resolving their problems through an Islamic state is akin to the belief in the communist utopia widespread in the 20th century.
It was decided that the results of the conference would be published as a collection of the key speakers’ papers. In addition, the DOC and KAZISS agreed to continue cooperation and to sign a memorandum of understanding.