“The average income of the families of the majority of Kyrgyzstani citizens who have left, tells us that the difficult socio-economic situation is not a key motivation”, – says Chinara Esengul in an article on the causes of youth radicalization in Kyrgyzstan, written specially for cabar.asia.
The globalization of terrorism and violent extremism is the fait accompli of our time. The only questions are – why did it happen and what can we do to stem terror and violence?
Kyrgyzstan has not remained aloof from global problems. The participation of more than 500 Kyrgyzstani citizens in Middle East conflicts has dominated views among young people forcing them to think seriously about the security of our state and society both in the present and future. Kyrgyzstan cannot directly influence the course of events at the global level but can and should work at least on its territory to reduce the expansion of terror and violence.
This work aims to 1) analyze and evaluate the processes of youth radicalization in Kyrgyzstan, 2) identify factors that lead to religious radicalization and violent extremism, and 3) produce a number of strategic and practical proposals to counter these threats.
The concepts of “religious radicalization” and “violent extremism” are not clearly defined; there is no coherent vision and understanding of their nature. The development and use of common definitions is seen as problematic because of objective ontological and epistemological difficulties inherent in the very nature of social phenomena. Latent processes, a strongly pronounced psycho-cultural component, have a highly political and cultural perspective of the radicalization process’ “end point” but without unity and agreement among theorists and practitioners along with inadequate attention being paid to the theoretical and conceptual foundations and research mechanisms of thinking and hands-on learning. All this exists within the background of an increasingly growing geopolitical confrontation between the major powers. In this regard, the author gives their own conditional definitions based on available global generalizations of theoretical knowledge and small practical experiences in a study of these phenomena with Kyrgyzstan as an example.
“Religious radicalization” is understood as a process leading to overtly radical religious views and behavior while denying more moderate and mainstream attitudes and practices of a religion, which, in turn, can lead to violent criminal behavior. “Violent extremism” is an ideological admissibility and practical willingness to use violence to achieve ones’ political, ideological, and religious purposes. Most point out the problem of radicalism as such and that it can lead to violent extremism though there is real difficulty in its identification and prevention.
Description of the problem
Kyrgyzstani youth, those between 14 and 28 years of age, have been the main but not the only group that is susceptible to political, ethnic, and religious radicalization. From 2013 to 2015, the average age of those who left to fight were between 22-28 living in urban or near-urban areas and mainly represent the ethnic minorities in the Muslim south of the country from families with average incomes.
Why does it turn out that precisely this profile of supporters of violent extremism is in Kyrgyzstan?
Typically, it points to a complex combination of “rejection” (push) and “attraction” (pull) factors that determine the decision of an individual to join. Factors that push can be attributed to the general dissatisfaction with the social infrastructure, economic difficulties, presence of social or structural discrimination, inefficiency of management systems, personal and social resentment, and more.
The analysis of social processes and practices along with relations between state and society in the Kyrgyz Republic shows that Kyrgyz youth actually (despite the seemingly expressed attention of the authorities to youth issues after the April 2010 events) remain an “unheard” and “unrepresented” social group. Young people have a highly limited space in politics and decision-making, limited due to the lack of assets (money, knowledge, attitudes, etc.) for their own decisions and actions. Paternalism, inertial pseudo-statism, and patrimonial habits and values do not allow the older generation (politicians, parents and others), who does not belong to the category of young people (in this article can be designated as the age above 35), to really believe in young people, invest in their subjectivity, personal development, and capitalize on their youthful energy and potential for country development.
Muslim minority youth are radicalized more actively since 1) they do not see any prospects for themselves in Kyrgyzstan along with the country as a whole; 2) they do not receive sufficient education and critical thinking in order to understand that they are being manipulated and used as an instrument for political and ideological purposes; 3) they feel discriminated against by both society (read, majority Kyrgyz) and state institutions and want to change it radically; 4) they do not see value in the experience of their parents while not receiving sufficient and adequate modern realities of upbringing and care from their parents and relatives; 5) they see in the construction of the caliphate a way out of all the problems listed above.
City and near-urban youth are radicalized because 1) they gradually become frustrated and can not find answers to their ideological, social, political, economic needs, and the needs of the family in secular educational institutions; 2) a lack of work and employment for urban youth in connection with large-scale de-industrialization of Kyrgyzstan along with internal migration from the countryside to in or around cities in search of “a better life”, which for the majority is full of disappointments, socio-economic challenges, and psychological difficulties. Besides, the education system and the quality of education do not match labor market needs. 3) they observe their parents and elders who are not able to successfully navigate the ever-changing context of the post-Soviet existence, where the experiences, knowledge, and skills of “seniors” are not relevant and effective, hence the practice of “bribing”; 4) they are more likely to use ICT such as social media applications for mobile devices and the Internet, thus becoming “easy prey” for well-trained online extremist recruiters and terrorist groups; 5) urban youth for the most part do not differentiate religious literacy and are easily indoctrinated into radical interpretations of Islam.
The average income of the families of the majority of Kyrgyzstani citizens who have left tells us that the difficult socio-economic situation is not a key motivation, but is actually a combination of factors: the search itself, its identity, the mastering and observance of ideology, opening up new possibilities of socialization, “meaning”, and disappointment in the current system. Plus a very timely supply of the necessary information and motivation by recruiters, gives the following result.
Studies show that there is a trend of deteriorating cognitive abilities of both rural and urban youth. For example, a study conducted in 2014 showed that ” many of the young people interviewed did not appear to possess a clear hierarchy of values or particular political self-understanding, the great majority lacking a rudimentary knowledge of the current social and economic situation.” Youth have an “insufficient level of critical thinking skills and situational analysis” and “many young people in Kyrgyz Republic tend to have high expectations, but largely because of an inadequate understanding of the obstacles that they are likely to face.” The psychological vulnerability of young people deliberately exploited online and offline by recruiters that point and “click” on the sore spot encourages fighting against the ineffective secular regimes, justifies the conflict in the family for the sake of faith, justifies a heroic death for the sake of Allah and Paradise, etc.
A brief analysis of the context
By the 25th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s independence it is not sad to admit it but the process of post-Soviet social transformation is far from complete. If one looks objectively and evaluates the history of the state and society, perhaps a quarter of a century is a short period for the formation and consolidation of new historical processes. Generally speaking, this is especially poignant in the context of a lack of Central Asian historical memory and experiences of building their own independent secular nation-state with a democratic and open society.
Prior to the arrival of Russians to Central Asia in the middle of the 19th century, Islam was the only dominant religion and is a supranational identity. During the Soviet Union, religion was officially banned, although religious practices were informally held at homes. Attempts by the Soviet regime to “squeeze” religion out of public life and consciousness led to the weakening and gradual loss of Central Asian Muslim’s Islamic schools and academies of religious thought.
In the post-Soviet period, there began and continues to be an intensive process of re-Islamization. During this period, Kyrgyzstan allowed itself to “import” many Islamic teachings, each of which continues to lay claim to the truth and tries to increase their number of followers. There were 39 mosques in Kyrgyzstan prior to the collapse of the USSR. In 2015, the number of mosques was 2,814. Today, there are more than 80 Islamic educational institutions. This establishes the “unhealthy” parallel system of religious and secular education. Today, opposition develops simultaneously along many lines – “secular-religious”, “moderate and radical”, and “radical Muslims and extremists ready to use violence to achieve their goals”. In the absence of strong Muslim intellectuals and an advanced management system of the religious sphere, the weakness of the spiritual and ideological bases of so-called “traditional Islam” has fostered an identity crisis. A key issue, which is expressed by:
- An absence of a common and shared national ideology;
- A weakening of the family and civil traditions;
- Ineffective and irrelevant Soviet and traditional legacies to the current realities of formal and informal institutions;
- Broad religious illiteracy among the population, especially young people;
- A crisis of secular values and institutions.
How correctly and succinctly put by Alexey Malashenko that the “ideological vacuum” in Central Asia would be filled by Islam and nationalism. Beginning in 2012-2013 in connection with the active phase of events in the Middle East and the participation of our citizens in the fighting in Syria and Iraq under the banner of ISIL, we are finally convinced that the ideological space of religious radicalism and violent extremism is expanding rapidly in Kyrgyzstan. Regardless of the results of the conflict in Syria and the effectiveness of the actions of the international coalition “battling” ISIL, gunmen with their worldview, beliefs, and warfare skills will continue to exist in one form or another whether abroad or in their own countries.
Summing up the results can be described by the following factors, which create fertile ground for the radicalization of young people in Kyrgyzstan:
- Low quality of both secular and religious education;
- Low level of employment and underemployment along with irregular employment, mostly in the informal sector;
- Fuzzy value guidelines and the outstanding issues of identity;
- Social inequality, discrimination, and inefficiency of state and municipal management;
- Economic difficulties and limited opportunities;
- Declaratory attention paid to young people but with limited participation in decision-making at all levels.
Global experience shows that the causes and consequences of violent extremism should be addressed in three ways: prevention, suppression, and rehabilitation. This article offers some recommendations for prevention with regard to preventive measures and rehabilitation. These areas should be thoroughly studied and developed jointly with law enforcement agencies and other government bodies at all levels along with the leaders of the communities most exposed to religious radicalization.
Recommendations for prevention
In my opinion, the formation of a stable system capable of countering the ideological level and distribution of violent extremism must include intensifying the family’s role, preschools and schools, and other educational facilities with mechanisms for closer cooperation between them. The main purpose is to create sustainable communities that enhance and strengthen the internal capacity of the public and immunity against radicalization and violent extremism.
Education systems, civil society organizations, and the media can and should:
- Educate young people on constructive strategies for conflict resolution;
- Expand the social horizons of understanding the roles and place of youth in society and the state;
- Teach critical and analytical thinking skills in order to generate resistance to false religious propaganda and recruitment;
- Change the attitude of parents towards their children from the hierarchical and oppressive to equal and tolerant;
- Encourage parents to think about and observe their behavior while exhibiting less aggression in the home with emphasis on a more caring and inclusive education in the spirit of tradition and modern needs;
- Elaborate and implement mechanisms in the educational process to coordinate efforts through the “family-school” and propose an early warning system for signs of radicalization among adolescents and high school students;
- Kyrgyzstan’s muftiate should give more information in other languages (Uzbek and Russian) about traditional Islam in Kyrgyzstan in formats that are simple and easily perceived by the population, especially young people, rather than ideological counter-propaganda against extremist rhetoric;
- The Muftiate, the State Commission on Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Yyman Fund should consider a joint strategy and implementation plan for the restoration of the learned and funding base of “traditional Islam”;
- State and independent media must be able to cover sensitive topics in the fields of religion and radicalization with an overly careful and balanced approach as well as produce informational and analytical materials about the life, status, and mood of the Kyrgyzstani diaspora in different languages.
In addition to changes at the societal level, the foremost work is to be done at the state management level with the need to:
- Critically review and modify accordingly the Electoral Commission to make available political space to active and interested representatives of youth politics. While eradicating corruption, nepotism, and tribalism in positions of power is not possible, at least 1\4 of the seats in local kenesh and administrations should be allocated to representatives of youth;
- Focus as much as possible on the successful implementation of the State Youth Policy Strategy, 2016-2020. It is expected that the strategy itself will be adopted before the end of the year. In the current government structure, the formation of youth policy falls within the mandate of the Ministry of Education and Science and the implementation of youth policy is the prerogative of the Agency of Physical Culture and Sports;
- Tie qualifications obtained by young people in educational institutions in terms of their quantity and quality with labor market needs (National Strategy Committee, Ministry of Education and Science, and Ministry of Economy);
- Take into account the interests and attitudes of young people in the development of country strategy papers (Government Office, Office of the President, Kyrgyz National Institute for Strategic Studies);
- Coordinate the activities of international organizations and development partners working in the field of civic education to implement real concepts for strengthening the unity of the people of Kyrgyzstan (President’s Office) and to promote the initiative “Kyrgyz citizen” (President’s Office, Government of KR);
- Introduce “religion” as a school subject as soon as possible and on a large scale (Ministry of Education and Science, State Commission on Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic);
- Elaborate and implement mechanisms for employment or further professional trainings for young people studying in religious institutions (in particular Uzbek youth, girls, and women) (Ministry of Education and Science and departmental divisions, State Commission on Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic).
The people of Kyrgyzstan are very flexible and receptive. These characteristics could be the basis for fast and dynamic economic growth and a spiritual revival, especially in a country where 1\3 of the population are youth, but it can also turn into a disaster with ill-considered policy. Strongly supporting youth and strengthening the constructive potential of young people can help limit the adverse impact of “Arabization” and effectively fight against radicalization and violent extremism.
 According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Security Committee of the Kyrgyz Republic by the end of 2015.
 Neumann, Peter R. “The Trouble with Radicalization.” International Affairs 89, no. 4 (July 2013): 873–93. doi:10.1111/1468-2346.12049.
 Neumann, 2013.
 Field study data conducted through interviews with law enforcement officials and representatives of local communities in May 2016. This data confirms the findings of the study conference “Kyrgyzstani Militants in Foreign Terrorist Organizations”, held in January 2015 by the organization “Search for Common Ground” in Kyrgyzstan.
 ACTED. Youth of the Kyrgyz Republic: Values, Social Moods, and Conflict Behavior. Bishkek: USAID, 2014, pg. 58. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00JS4T.pdf.
 Ibid, 46.
 Refer to previous “Kyrgyzstani Militants in Foreign Terrorist Organizations”
 State Commission on Religious Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic. State Policy in the Religious Sphere: Legal Basis, Concepts, and “Traditional Islam” in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek, 2015, pg. 6. http://www.religion.gov.kg/ru/gospol_rel_sfere.pdf.
 Ibid, pg. 15.
 Malashenko, Alexey. The Fight for Influence: Russia in Central Asia. New York, NY, United States: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013, pg. 79.
Author: Chinara Esengul, Senior Advisor for the conflicts prevention, UNDP (Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek).
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of cabar.asia