On 12 November 2019 in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), the French Institute for Central Asian Studies (IFEAC) and the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) held the ‘Religious radicalism in Central Asia’ roundtable.
Leading religious scholars and experts on extremism from the region analysed the evolution of radical movements, the current dynamics of religious extremism, and the problems of de-radicalisation.
In her opening remarks, IFEAC Director Catherine Poujol addressed the issue of the return of former jihadists to their countries of origin in Europe. According to her, there is still no clear answer to the question of how to respond to the challenge. She emphasised that it is impossible to separate religious radicalism in Central Asia from the global context, noting that relevant research is difficult to conduct at the required level in the current conditions of extremely limited research funding.
The meeting’s moderator, DOC Chief Researcher Alexey Malashenko, suggested the participants forecast the dynamics of religious radicalism in the region for the three to five years. He himself identified three possible scenarios:
1) No significant changes. According to Malashenko, this is the most likely scenario.
2) There will be a gradual decrease in the dynamics of religious radicalism.
3) The onset of the ‘Central Asian Spring’ with the emergence of an ‘Islamic state’ (the least likely scenario, but one that cannot be completely ruled out).
Dr Alexander Yarkov from the Tyumen State University drew attention to ‘diversity’ and a significant number of regional varieties in Islam. In resolving problems related to religious radicalism, this circumstance must be taken into account. In addition, the prevention of radicalism should take into account the latest global trends and, in particular, the social networks phenomenon. Prevention of extremism must start at school. Moreover, in many cases, local problems must be resolved at the local level. It is necessary to increase the level of expert understanding of extremist literature, preferably by developing common assessment criteria. Attention should be paid to the problem of the correlation of civic identity and the idea of the universal unity of Muslims. Finally, it is necessary to establish closer interaction within the expert and academic communities involved in the study of respective issues.
One of the problems in this area, Yarkov noted, is that everything that differs from the ‘mainstream’ often falls under the definition of ‘extremism’, and this problem is not unique to the religious sphere.
The head of the ‘Risk Assessment Group’ consulting NGO, Dosym Satpaev, made an analysis of the religious field in modern Kazakhstan.
He identified several key factors in radicalisation in Kazakhstan:
- The formation of a marginalised socio-economic environment, primarily among the youth;
- An ideological vacuum in the state amid a toxic information environment;
- Low levels of religious education, including among the clergy;
- A decline in the quality of secular education and human capital;
- Unemployment growth;
- Internal migration from rural areas to cities;
- Favourable conditions for the dissemination of radical ideas among inmates in prisons;
- A neighbourhood with areas of high terrorist risk.
A change in the demographic situation in Kazakhstan (a steady increase in the proportion of ethnic Kazakhs in the population), according to Satpaev, will inevitably lead to changes in identity over time. He also pinpointed that under certain circumstances nationalism can be transformed into religious extremism.
According to Satpaev’s forecast, in the following 15-20 years, a scenario is possible whereby the importance of Islam in the life of Central Asian societies will increase, which, in turn, could lead to changes in the field of geopolitics.
Speaking about the risks of religious radicalism, Satpaev pointed out the possibility that existing anti-Chinese sentiment in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could be used by religious activists in their own interests.
An expert from Tajikistan, Parviz Mullodzhanov, presented the results of his study of religious radicalisation in Tajikistan. He drew attention to the fact that Tajikistan was the first state in Central Asia to face the problem of religious radicalism. A constant challenge in this area is the ‘neighbourhood’ with Afghanistan.
In the past few years, a slight decrease in the number of recruits to radical organisations has been recorded in the country, which is associated, inter alia, with ISIS’ loss of positions in the Middle East. At the same time, a number of extremists are turning to ‘popular jihad’, that is, local jihad, which is especially difficult to track and prevent.
At the same time, information has been appearing recently about the moving of extremists from Tajikistan to northern Afghanistan.
The situation in Tajikistan is complicated by the growth of economic difficulties leading to an increase in social tension, which is exacerbated by reduced social mobility in Tajik society, as well as by a policy of religious prohibitions. For example, with the ban of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, legal political Islam in Tajikistan ceased to exist. As a result, radicals are monopolising this sphere. Along with this, the government sometimes uses Salafists in its struggle with potential competitors from the Islamic political environment.
At the same time, the destruction of the system of primary and secondary religious education is leading to a decrease of the quality of clergy and the de-intellectualisation of religious discourse. Furthermore, the lack of information in religious and other fields leads to growing popularity of conspiracy theories.
An alarming trend is also the growing influence of Salafism on Tajik society as a whole (both on the secular and religious parts of it). A ‘salafitisation’ of social consciousness and the growth of extremist underground activities are becoming one of the likely development scenarios. Moreover, this trend may spread to other countries of the region.
Uzbek religious studies scholar Bakhtiyar Babajanov shared his observations of extremism in Uzbekistan. One of the alarming symptoms is the increase in the number of people who perceive the existing secular state as a temporary stage of development.
State policy on religion, according to Babajanov, often looks awkward. For example, the region’s traditional, non-politicised Adat Islam is being replaced by a politicised form of the religion as a result of the inept policies of the states in the region. As an alternative to this course, the state should rely not on theologians, but on a mass of ordinary citizens, for whom Islam is a part of their cultural identity.
Babajanov also noted that while discussing the problems of religious extremism, many observers talk about problems of religious education but few pay attention to problems of secular education. Referring to the well-known issue of hijabs, he expressed the opinion that men frequently force women to wear the hijab.
During the discussion, Nurlan Alniyazov, a scholar of oriental history, pointed out that today in Kazakhstan’s prisons, the criminal ethics traditional for prisons is being replaced by Muslim ethics, which in practice often leads to the spread of radical Islamist ideas among inmates.
The Center for Religious Studies expert, Indira Aslanova, drew attention to the widely ignored desire to help the suffering Muslims of the Middle East that motivated some of those who left their countries to join ISIS several years ago. She cited the demonisation of extremists and the excessive securitisation of this issue as one significant reason leading to radicalisation, whereby the exaggeration of the problem causes the opposite effect by also increasing the interest of a part of the population in extremist organisations.
Several participants in the roundtable pointed to the low level of media literacy as one of the main reasons making young people vulnerable to extremist propaganda.
Expert on Islam, Rasim Chelidze, drew attention to the fact that one significant problem in the life of Muslim communities is that today, many people make public statements on behalf of Islam. This line of conduct can lead to negative consequences. It would be more correct for such speakers to indicate for which particular branch of Islam they are speaking. This would enable avoidance of a lot of stereotypes Muslims face today.
Alexander Yarkov pointed to the need for large-scale social advertising directed against extremism.
In his concluding remarks, Alexey Malashenko urged everyone to ponder the question of whether there is a distinct boundary beyond which the natural desire for justice becomes extremism and starts to provoke threats. Once again, he drew attention to the critical importance of the exchange of experiences between experts in the field.