It’s a seemingly obvious path from migrant worker to radical in the minds of many, characterized by separation and marginalization and thus clear vulnerability to radicalization. But as respected migration studies scholar Sergey Abashin, a professor of history at the European University in St. Petersburg, explained at a timely talk hosted by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program on Tuesday, research does not back up several common assumptions about Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, especially with regard to religiosity and radicalization.
The usual argument regarding migrant workers and their path to radicalization starts with a poor and uneducated Central Asian departing a rural community in search of work in Russia. The migrant is broken away from their traditional life and thrust into the chaos of Russian society, where they come under pressure. The migrant is marginalized and not able to integrate, living in a ghetto of sorts with other Central Asians who work similarly difficult jobs. The stress of disconnection and isolation make the migrant vulnerable to radicalization, especially as they seek a greater sense of community via their Islamic faith. In becoming more devoted, the migrant becomes exposed to more radical networks.
Why, Abashin asked, if this usual narrative is correct have we not seen greater radicalization in migrant communities in Russia in the past? Indeed, Central Asians have been migrating to Russia for over two decades, and more than that if we consider the Soviet period. Yet of the bombings and terrorist attacks that have occurred in Russia since 2000, the bombing this week in St. Petersburg appears to be the first by a Central Asian (who, it must be noted, had been a Russian citizen since 2011, when he was 16).
Furthermore, the migrant experience is diverse. The more than 3 million registered migrant workers, plus illegal, unregistered migrants, travel to cities across Russia — no one narrative can tell their collective story. While religion may be important to some, it is not the only vector of developing community or identity, Abashin stressed.
Abashin offered two challenges to the usual narrative. First, he tackled the assumption that migrants necessarily become separated from their traditional and rural roots and communities.
Migration, Abashin noted, is not immigration. Young Central Asian men do what their fathers did: travel to work in Russia for a few years, sending money back to their family, and then return home to marry and begin their own families. Most have no intention on staying in Russia. According to Abashin’s statistics, in 2015 47 percent of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia were between the ages of 18 and 29. The decision to migrate, Abashin said, was often made within the context of the extended family, which relies on the individual migrant to send money home. In this fashion, migrants are not severed from their home communities but remain important members of those communities. Migration, he said, happens within the social network, not outside of it.
The second challenge Abashin made was to the assumption that isolation and marginalization of migrants leads clearly to radicalization. This formulation is too general, he said. It misses the diverse patterns of religiosity among migrants and within migrant communities in Russia, and further, makes assumptions unnecessarily conflating religiosity with radicalization. Pointing to John Heathershaw and David Montgomery’s seminal 2015 paper, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, Abashin backed their analysis of the myth and offered a few corollaries.
Notably, Abashin said, there is no overarching pattern of religiosity among migrant communities. Some Central Asians become less religious and others more religious while in Russia — it depends on other factors, including where they are working and what type of community they are surrounded by. Migrants, Abashin said, adopt practices which help them in their primary goal: making money. This may be drinking or going to mosque, depending on the boss and business. Further, the integration or marginalization of migrant workers varies from city to city. Smaller cities with greater demand for migrant workers have focused on developing programs to integrate migrants into local society; education programs targeted at instructing teachers how to teach Russian to non-Russian speakers, for example. In larger metropolitan areas, like Moscow, where there are more migrant workers and higher competition for jobs between migrants and ethnic Russians, municipal governments have not developed such programs. It’s silly to have to say this, but Russia is a huge country. The experiences of migrants vary immensely from city to city and person to person.
The talk Tuesday, scheduled long before the recent events in St. Petersburg in which a Kyrgyz-born, Russian citizen is suspected of committing a suicide bombing in the city’s metro system, was incredibly timely. In talking about the St. Petersburg events, Abashin noted that the alleged bomber’s story does not seem to be that of a typical Muslim migrant in Russia. “He is not part of a pattern,” Abashin said, “he is an exception.”
As more information comes out about Akbarjon Jalilov, the 22-year old Russian authorities claim was behind the bombing, his story doesn’t match the usual migrant story outlined and challenged above. Unlike most migrant workers, Jalilov had been a Russian citizen since 2011, when he was 16. In addition, the motive for the attack remains unknown. While the obvious and initial assumption is religious radicalization, there’s nothing concrete yet to suggest that is the case.
As Farangis Najibullah explains in a must-read piece from RFE/RL on what is known about Jalilov, “So far, there is no public indication that the bombing was motivated by religious extremism. It wasn’t clear if Jalilov was an observant Muslim, or whether he had somehow become affiliated with any religious extremist group. Nor has any group claimed responsibility.”
Examination of social media accounts appearing to belong to Jalilov are inconclusive. “He posted links to videos about boxing and wrestling, along with dozens of links to music files, including by rap artist Snoop Dogg, and boxer-rapper Roy Jones, Jr.,” Najibullah writes. “He also ‘liked’ two groups that appeared to be moderate Islamic organizations, and neither of which appeared to have anything resembling radical or extremist ideology.”
Russian media has reported that Jalilov recently quit his job at a sushi bar and “disappeared.” Others have reported that he worked at an auto repair shop recently. Kyrgyz media earlier reported that Jalilov visited his parents in early March. Family speaking to RFE/RL characterized Jalilov as a “normal guy.”
Abashin, on Tuesday, stressed that we need to approach cases like that of Jalilov individually. Generalization and oversimplification of narratives not only about migrant experiences but also the pathways to radicalization lead to negative perceptions about migrant workers.