The latest contribution to the field of research on violent religious radicalization among citizens of Central Asia is both meticulous and deeply, perhaps inescapably, frustrating.
In order to crack the causality conundrum, the authors of the paper published on April 27 by the London-based Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, look not at the radicalized individuals themselves but at how they are perceived among their peers and community. The focus of the paper is specifically on the extent to which migrant laborers based in Russia are at risk of recruitment.
The answer, as so often in this kind of research, is on the one hand this and on the other hand that. Nuance on such a thorny matter is only to be welcomed, of course, but the sheer agglomeration of percentage points and repetitive micro-analyses and accounts here often induces perplexity over enlightenment.
A perennial theme running throughout the report, which is based on fieldwork in 13 Russian cities centered on semi-structured interviews with more than 200 people from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is that there is no clear explanation for “why labor migrants from Central Asia working in Russia would go to fight in a third country.” Channeling their inner Leo Tolstoy, the authors of the introduction opine that human behavior “tends to be highly personal and [individualized].” Don’t look for a silver bullet, because there isn’t one.
And so the researchers turn to crowdsourcing as a means by which to test long-favored theories. This method tells us that most people questioned “believed that a monetary incentive (‘greed’) was the primary motive for joining violent-extremist groups.” Religion is seen a less pressing motivation, although the figure varies among the three nationalities interviewed. So among the Tajik interviewees, for instance, “the majority of those interviewed (over two-thirds), eight of whom had some direct knowledge of recruitment, believed that money is an important incentive for those joining extremist groups.”
The shortcomings of this approach are hard to ignore. Asking somebody ostensibly immune to the appeals of radical religious ideas to speculate about what makes radical religious ideas appeal to their peers feels like a fool’s errand. Laymen interviewees are liable to produce contradictory guesswork and often do just that. On occasion, as the RUSI research awkwardly reveals, some of the pop anthropology comes off as decidedly dubious and unsavory. One Kyrgyz male living in Moscow offers a particularly chauvinistic explanation for why “only Uzbeks go to Syria or Iraq.”
“Kyrgyz don’t respect them [those who go to fight], but among young Uzbeks they are some kind of hero,” he tells the RUSI researcher.
Where the report is strongest is where the witnesses speak from a personal perspective about their life experiences. The accounts of expatriate laborers struggling with Russian bureaucracy, harassment, everyday prejudice, economic hardship and loneliness are detailed, sobering and depressingly familiar.
But what is one to do with this insight? RUSI is positively Jesuitical in its contortions on casual links between any given factor and violent extremism. And having crunched the numbers, the researchers are inclined to distrust what their respondents tell them.
“The authors of this report are cautious against putting too much trust into the respondents’ views that economic hardship/poverty/material incentives drive radicalization,” Mohammed S. Elshimi, a research fellow at RUSI, writes in his closing analysis.
The study of religious radicalization fittingly tends to generate highly doctrinaire positions among scholars, so it is tempting to wonder whether this gingerness is intended to insure against the prospect of public sniping from fellow researchers.
One area that could have done with more in-depth study is the internet, whose role is quite cursorily addressed. Of the three concrete examples of online radicalization mentioned in the Kyrgyzstan section of the report, one account is of an imam talking about a migrant’s wife who learned about religion on the internet. By the time this reaches the reader’s eyes, this is in effect fourth-hand information. Considering there were dozens of interviewees in the 20-to-30 age bracket, this feels like a disappointingly underdeveloped theme.
Maybe the oddest section of RUSI’s report is the one devoted to recommendations. Overall, the research is commendable for its humane consideration of the complex cocktail of social and psychological factors at play. So it is all the more confounding to see top billing given, among the advice, to the suggestion that the authoritarian governments of Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan should bolster their existing counterterrorism initiatives.
On the domestic front, Central Asia governments have used the specter of terrorism to ride roughshod over basic rights and liberties. To be fair, there are also government-supported and independent organizations doing valiant work in the community, but these rarely grab the headlines.
Illiberality extends to multilateral cooperation too. There is ample evidence that after the St. Petersburg metro bombing of April 2017, Russian authorities essentially spirited one of their main suspects out of Kyrgyzstan, disregarding the need for proper procedure. This legally dubious maneuver was done in complicity with the Kyrgyz security services. When it comes to anything terrorism-related, similar shenanigans are the norm in the authoritarian end of the former Soviet space.
On the preventative front, RUSI urges greater engagement between Russian authorities and diaspora communities. The report rightly hails the work that diaspora groups are already doing, but the spectrum of problems laid bare elsewhere in the research makes it clear that it is unreasonable to expect too much. And this is not only to do with violent extremism, the scale and nature of which is, in any case, grotesquely distorted by the requirements of modern mass media. There is an entire constellation of traumas and troubles that afflict migrants – the Russian authorities are indifferent to most of them and diaspora organizations can hardly be expected to serve as a panacea for all ills.
If an analysis on the roots of radicalism is to be based on the perceptions of tangentially affected stakeholders, would it not be more logical to suggest that the governments in all the nations involved perhaps address those grievances? The countries under examination are not, speaking generally, ruled by the greatest listeners.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet's Central Asia editor.