The Debate

Understanding Islamic Radicalization in Central Asia (UPDATED)

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The Debate

Understanding Islamic Radicalization in Central Asia (UPDATED)

An open letter from Central Asia scholars to the International Crisis Group, along with Crisis Group’s response.

Understanding Islamic Radicalization in Central Asia (UPDATED)
Credit: Catherine Putz

On October 3, 2016, the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential independent research organization, released another report on Islamic radicalization in Central Asia. The report — Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalization — follows previous publications on Tajikistan (2016, 2011, 2009) and Kyrgyzstan (2015, 2009) that advance specious and methodologically weak conclusions about the extent and threat of Muslim mobilization. In a reactive policy environment, with a deficit of real knowledge, narratives of danger can be seductive but also lead to a series of mistaken assumptions, problems, and solutions.

We, the signatories of this letter, constitute a significant constituency of academic researchers who have worked on the region over the last few decades and published some of the leading scholarship on Islam and politics in Central Asia. We represent a broad range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences and hail from North America, Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.

Taking a unified public position against the reportage of organizations like ICG is rare, but we do it for two reasons: 1) to highlight how dystopic characterizations of Islam in the region are more representative of prejudice and bias than they are reflective of Central Asian realities; and 2) in pointing out the methodological shortcomings of the recent ICG report we aim to point constructively to better approaches. It is important that we understand better the nature of religious change in Central Asia in order to put the small minority of genuinely extremist groups in Central Asia in their proper context.

Crisis Group’s response to this letter can be viewed here and at the bottom of this text.

The Modernization Fallacy

Two very general arguments come through in the recent report on Kyrgyzstan that need be questioned. First is the identification of poverty and underdevelopment as the primary cause of violent extremism. The first sentence of the second paragraph sums up the conceptual error driving the report to an unfounded conclusion: “In the absence of political pluralism, a reliable state and economic opportunities, growing numbers of citizens are taking recourse in religion.” (p.1) The problem here is the assumption that religion in general is part of the problem, i.e. that if there was political pluralism, a reliable state, and economic opportunities, people would be less religious. While the report acknowledges the failures of the state to provide security and opportunity for prosperity to its citizenry, and is explicit that state actions can make the situation worse, its starting assumption implies that crackdowns on Muslims who articulate any opposition to the secular state are justified.

This contention may be considered a crude variation of modernization theory, which has long been discredited in academia but retains prominence in popular discourse. One branch of modernization theory offered the secularization thesis in the 1960s and 1970s. In very basic terms it contends that religion, and particularly “fundamentalist” religion, is an artifact of traditional societies and will die out as these societies become richer, more technically sophisticated, and more reliant on science for their knowledge and understanding. This analysis fell out of favor in the late-20th century as it became clear that there simply was not evidence to support its general conclusions.

Nonetheless, the report concludes that: “Poverty, the need for many to migrate to support a family and decline of government ability to provide services have undermined belief in democracy. In partial response, growing numbers look to Islam for political identity and a source of authority.” (p.15) Going further, it warns that “the environment is favorable for radical groups that reject the nation state, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, and those with a violent agenda, such as IS.” (p.16)  The line that leads from poverty and undermined belief in democracy to the Islamic State is not a straight one, nor is it ever demonstrated by the authors. For example, in our own research we have demonstrated how people’s loss of confidence in the state is not necessarily a loss in support for democratic ideals so much as it is an acknowledgement that the state they are experiencing is not democratic. Furthermore, in Kyrgyzstan, in particular, empirical research shows that looking to Islam for identity and authority almost never leads to violent extremism; it is far more likely to lead to discussions around public morality and governmental reform than violent rebellion.

Study after study has shown there is no link between poverty and low education levels and a desire to participate in violent Islamist groups. Most recently, an October 2016 study by the World Bank based on a large cache of data on Islamic State recruits indicated exactly this. Within the region, Erlan Karin, the head of Kazakhstan’s Presidential Institute of Strategic Studies, has examined dozens of cases of Central Asian nationals who joined IS and found this year that they tend to have above-average education levels for IS fighters in general and occupy a disproportionately large number of officer (senior) positions within the group.

The Danger of ‘Non-Traditional’ Religion

A second general argument found in ICG’s studies on radicalization in Central Asia is the suggestion that non-violent, “non-traditional” groups are indicators of the growth (or at least potential growth) of violent extremism. While the ICG is clear not to accuse non-violent groups of offering the same direct threat, it clearly presents them as destabilizing forces.

The point here is that what constitutes a group as threatening is not always clear. For example, in its analysis ICG presents “Salafis” in Kyrgyzstan as the thin end of the wedge to jihadi terrorism. This is done inconsistently. For example, on page 3, the report notes that “The actual threat Salafism, but more specifically violent jihadist groups linked to IS, pose is contentious, complicated by unreliable security-service claims and ethnic rifts.” The report goes on to note that “authorities profess to fear Salafism’s political potential” (p.13) and the government “presents Salafism as a monolithic threat, not acknowledging its diversity, so mistakenly limits engagement with Salafi followers.” (p.15). Because the report does not take on the underlying assumptions about Salafism — relaying a narrative government officials construct rather than engaging the “Salafis” in question — the reader remains uncertain as to the relationship between Islam and politics. In the absence of such clarity or any objective evidence that a Salafi movement exists in Kyrgyzstan, the reader is left to fill in the gaps with their own prior assumptions.

Such analysis, while questioning Central Asian government policies, reproduces the categories used by the governments themselves, particularly the opposition between “traditional” and “radical” Islam — a distinction which serves as the rationale for monitoring, controlling, and oppressing pious Muslims. This secularist presentation of Islam is taken as an empirical reality, and this “reality” is referenced by quotes from the state and Western officials. While doing this, the recent report even criticizes the “widespread tendency of many Kyrgyz and Uzbeks but also authorities to link faith issues to political loyalty and identity” (p.2), which is precisely what the report itself does. It is problematic in the sense that it labels some believers as radical and potentially dangerous, a claim that — as detailed in many of our published writings — most believers would certainly reject.

Unsupported Claims and the Absence of Method

Our collective assessment is that the ICG’s data on radicalization is suspect because the data is drawn almost exclusively from Kyrgyz government sources, which have frequently been criticized by scholars and the local independent press for manipulating the alleged extremist threats for political purposes. Research is a profession that demands basic standards of design, data collection, and analysis. While we recognize that reports aimed at policymakers may not include methodology chapters — though sometimes they do — we expect the authors to follow a systematic approach to arriving at a question and getting to an answer. Although early ICG studies (2005, 2004, 2003, 2001) on Central Asia were well-regarded for having a rigorous research methodology, recent studies on state weakness and radicalization demonstrate little or no consideration of research design. Instead, the argument of the reports has become almost tautological.

The latest report on Kyrgyzstan is full of unsupported claims about what Kyrgyz or Uzbeks believe, think, or do with little more than hearsay or “expert testimony” offered as evidence. For example, the report claims “there is growing evidence that both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are finding recourse in more radical forms of Islam,” (p.2) without giving evidence to support this claim. It goes on to claim there is “wide belief in society that non-traditional Islam is gaining support of the youth at the expense of the Kyrgyz national identity…” where the footnoted source is a “former high-ranking official.” (p.3) Similarly, “secular Uzbeks” are claimed to consider “devout Kyrgyz” as most likely to hold “rigid Islamic views,” on the strength, seemingly, of an interview with a lawyer (p.7).

Where statistics are given, there is no interrogation into their meaning. For example, the report states that “a 2013 nationwide survey of NGO leaders found 20 percent approval of Sharia” (p.5) without any questioning of what such percentages mean. Other research shows that the vast majority of Muslims in Central Asia do not have a strict understanding of Sharia Law and do not see it as necessarily incompatible with civil law. Such nuances are completely lost in the report, yet given the radical assumptions as to what “Sharia” means to many fearful of Islam in the West, the interpretation is misleading and inaccurate.

All of these examples point to the importance of methodology. The elite interviews-only approach to political research, adopted by ICG and many policy-oriented researchers, is problematic but can be made to work if interviewees are credible experts, if their responses are critically considered, and if they are compared and contrasted with dissenting voices. Sources should always be understood as having their own agendas; because a government official is the source does not in any way suggest the answer is true or without bias. Without being critical, the reader ends up taking the data at face value, buying into state propaganda as if it was truth.

Understanding the Dynamics of Conflict and Repression

It is one thing for academics to pull apart non-scholarly studies but quite another to offer alternative framings of the puzzle that ICG are seeking to address. Religious revival has been occurring for some decades in Central Asia. One dimension of this is political. ICG is at least correct to caution that the repression of particular groups may well lead to more violence.  

There are better ways to understand the confrontation between secular government and religious organization in the post-Soviet period. The first step in this process is the recognition that “radicalization” does not simply happen out there in society apart from the state; it is produced in a symbolic and material struggle with the state. Research conducted by many of the signatories of this letter demonstrates that theology and doctrine are largely irrelevant in explaining why mobilization takes place in the majority of instances. In other cases, the demonization of a religiously-identified group by a militantly secular government can create a conflict where there was not one before. When the state declares its own opposition to a religious group, its members are left with no choice but to either abandon their religious beliefs or find themselves in opposition to the state. However, in Central Asia, there has not been a direct correlation between state oppression of religious groups leading to people taking up arms in resistance. Repression does not automatically lead to rebellion.

The point is that the factors are specific and multiple, most of them are non-religious, and none of them are sufficient in and of themselves. They are not about a lack of modernization, and rarely much to do with theology, but about conflicts between political factions about inclusion, inequality, and political economies perceived as unjust. Most importantly, there is a vast amount of variation from one alleged extremist group to another. Broad-brush analyses of modernization and religious radicalization are simply inadequate to characterize the dynamics of opposition and the nature of what lies beneath state fragility and radicalization.

Why This Matters

Shoddy research and analysis, as has recently been produced by ICG on radicalization in Central Asia, matter because these reports are read widely and influence policy and decision-making among government and NGO functionaries with limited experience in the region. This matters politically because it gives cover to justify repression in the name of combating violent extremism and causes confusion among policymakers regarding how and why recruitment to violent extremism actually takes place. They give the impression of the existence of an imminent security threat from Islam and the necessity for rapid response in form of a security policy on religion. This act-first-understand-later tendency is common to much foreign policy toward Central Asia.

While keeping in mind that the region suffers many economic and political problems that should be addressed, scholars, policymakers, and the public should be aware that Central Asia is a relatively stable region with very low levels of armed conflict and terrorism compared to its neighboring regions of the Middle East, the Caucasus, and South Asia. The primary political trend in Central Asia is not accelerated instability and conflict but the gradual consolidation of authoritarian regimes, of varying degrees of repression, in at least four of the five states.  

Most of all, this letter is a plea to the ICG to think more carefully about the political uses and misuses of their influential studies. The crude arguments made in many recent reports on radicalization from ICG and other similar organizations are in sharp contrast to the vast majority of recent academic research on Islam and politics in Central Asia. If ICG wishes to use information to help mitigate crisis rather than propagate it, it must research and write far better reports on Islam and politics in Central Asia.


Sergei Abashin, European University, St Petersburg

Noor Borbieva, Indiana University-Purdue University-Fort Wayne

Stéphane Dudoignon, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Tim Epkenhans, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Benjamin Gatling, George Mason University

John Heathershaw, University of Exeter

Pauline Jones, University of Michigan

Adeeb Khalid, Carleton College

Alisher Khamidov, independent researcher, Kyrgyzstan

Edward Lemon, Columbia University

Morgan Liu, The Ohio State University

Maria Louw, Aarhus University

Julie McBrien, Universiteit van Amsterdam

David W. Montgomery, CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion

Eric McGlinchey, George Mason University

Parviz Mullojonov, Open Society Foundation, Tajikistan

Mariya Omelicheva, University of Kansas

Mathijs Pelkmans, London School of Economics

Svetlana Peshkova, University of New Hampshire

Johan Rasanayagam, University of Aberdeen

Sophie Roche, Universität Heidelberg

Igor Savin, Russian Academy of Sciences

Wendell Schwab, Pennsylvania State University

Hélène Thibault, Nazarbayev University

Noah Tucker, Central Asia Program, George Washington University

UPDATE: Below, find the response from International Crisis Group:

Crisis Group thanks a group of scholars working on Central Asia for their open letter on our recent work in the region, especially our report “Kyrgyzstan: State Fragility and Radicalization.” We appreciate their insights on this important topic. We are encouraged that we share many common findings and goals and would welcome a discussion on causes and policies.

We would, however, like to address directly two issues raised in the letter. One is its contention that the report’s “starting assumption implies that crackdowns on Muslims who articulate any opposition to the secular state are justified.” It goes without saying that Crisis Group does not favor the repression or marginalization of Muslims or any other group. Repressive tactics, whatever form they take, are incompatible with our basic principles as an organization committed to finding inclusive political solutions to conflicts. We consistently call for peacebuilding, dialogue and work with established Islamic organisations and reject a security-methods-first approach.

The letter also states that Crisis Group’s “data is drawn almost exclusively from Kyrgyz government sources” and that we pursue an “elite interviews-only approach.” In fact, as is typical for our reports, in this case we conducted over 65 interviews with Kyrgyz citizens, few of whom could be classified as elite, in addition to interviews with outside experts. Research was carried out in each of Kyrgyzstan’s seven provinces, and our interlocutors, men and women, included imams, community activists, social workers, police officers, politicians, teachers, university lecturers, current and former employees of the Muftiate, students and teachers at madrassas, Kyrgyz academics, and other civil society actors – secular and religious – as well as current and former government officials. Crisis Group’s methodology includes talking to all sides prepared to speak to us – as wide a spectrum as possible.

We share much of the analysis in the letter, including the point that factors that can lead to radicalization are “specific and multiple, most of them are non-religious, and none of them are sufficient in and of themselves,” and the concern about counterproductive policies. We look forward to exchanging views and ideas in more detail with the authors to advance research on these topics of common concern.