The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
The assertion that between two and four thousand Central Asians have joined IS—the headline finding reported in media coverage of the report—is no more than guesswork. Although it leads the online summary, its provenance is found in footnote 6 on page 3: “Western officials estimate that about 400 fighters from each of the five Central Asian countries have travelled to join Islamic state. A Russian official put the total regional figure at 4,000. Crisis group interviews, Bishkek, October 2014.” We are simply required to trust these figures despite their obvious arbitrariness.
According to the authors, this reliance on local expertise leads the ICG to make false assumptions about the relationship between Islamization and radicalization.
Influenced by “Soviet-style themes of materialism,” most Central Asian experts argue that radicalization is driven by economic disadvantage. The ICG’s "Syria Calling" reproduces this argument. For Heathershaw and Montgomery, however, “there is no evidence for this claim in Central Asia.” Profiles of Europeans who have joined the Islamic State vary widely, they note; some are poor, recent migrants, others are relatively wealthy and were born in Europe.
Following such logic, expressions of faith become signs of resistance to the Central Asian regimes; in that view, Islamization forms the tip of the extremist iceberg. By conflating piety and radicalization, the ICG “legitimize[s] tyrannical state responses toward religious minorities.”
Is it not better to focus on the little that we actually do know? Publicly available evidence tells us that an unknown but relatively small number of “radicalized” Central Asians are in Syria as part of a global phenomenon; many of these people have already been killed or are finding it difficult to return through transnational networks. We also know from two post-Soviet decades of historical and social scientific research that while piety is increasing in Central Asia, the region’s Soviet-inspired secular Islam and its relative lack of armed conflict make it a less fertile recruiting ground than other Muslim-majority areas.
Finally, perhaps it also wise to recognize that there are limits to what can be done about IS in Central Asia. Much of what masquerades as research on the phenomenon of IS is driven by the security imperative. Governments would like to identify an existential threat and step in like heroes to defeat it. But overgeneralizing this threat and making spurious associations between Islamization and radicalization just leads to clumsy policy. It is better to identify specific criminal justice responses to returnees when they come back […] rather than to treat all pious Muslims as potential recruits and enemies of the state. Sometimes, the more uncertainty acknowledged and the less action taken, the better the policy.
The danger, the authors say, is that for the region’s heavy-handed security hardliners, “reports like this are a gift, not a challenge.”