Controlling Central Asian “terrorism” and “religious extremism”

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Earlier this week, Central Asia had a rare but inglorious moment in the news headlines after an Uzbek born man was found to be behind an attempt at a “terror” attack in New York City.

For those unfamiliar with the region or with the complexities of global religious extremism, this event was quickly reduced to a narrative along the lines of “Central Asia is a hotbed for terrorism”.

This is far from what life really looks like on the ground in Central Asia, as anyone who lives there can tell you.

In light of this week’s tragedy in the US, some excellent articles and news stories from journalists and researchers of the region have also attempted to combat this myth. Links to my must-read/watch reports in English can be found below.

We must also remember that what happened this week arose from the choices made by this one man who, as far as we know, acted alone and was drawn to extreme religion only after moving to the US. This could not possibly be representative of the 70 million people who live in Uzbekistan and the other countries of Central Asia.

The “terrorism” and “religious extremism” discourses are not confined to US domestic politics.

Back in Central Asia, the Tajik government issued a ruling on November 3 that will ban imams who studied religion overseas from preaching in Tajikistan’s mosques [ru].

Ostensibly, this is because some of these imams not only studied at “illegal” foreign universities and institutions, but they did so in order to “use the platform of the mosque to commit crime”.

Over the past two years, a number of foreign educated imams have already been identified and prosecuted for following the ideas of the Egypt-born Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood [en], which is seen by some states as a “terrorist organization”.

According to the Tajik government, over 3,500 of its citizens have studied or are currently abroad studying for an illegal religious education (how it knows this and how it decides what makes the education “illegal” is not clear). The government claims that the majority have already been returned to Tajikistan, presumably to face either the same fate as those imams already behind bars or to be prevented from further dabbling in unaccepted forms of Islam.

This is far from the first time that Tajikistan has cracked down on religion.

In 2010, the government recalled all students who were studying in Egypt in a “bid to prevent radicalisation” [en].

Five years later, a new state-sanctioned Islamic university was established [en] in the capital Dushanbe – giving the state a sanctioned route to manage who receives religious education, what they learn, and so on.

Perhaps the state’s most well-known intervention in religious matters was the farcical (and ongoing) clampdown on men wearing beards, which even became the subject of a sadly ill-informed BBC “documentary” on Tajikistan earlier in 2017.

Whilst it is unlikely that a direct connection can be drawn between this week’s two news stories, the actions of one former Central Asian national in the US and the Tajik state’s decision to ban foreign educated mullahs, one thing is clear.

Terrorism and religious extremism – and here we are talking exclusively about Islamic religious extremism – have become firmly established in state discourses amongst the 21st century’s biggest threats to global peace.

The way that different states deal with and talk about terrorism and religious extremism of course varies, but the message is always the same: These people have somehow become radicalized, this is a Very Bad Thing, and we must put an end to terrorism before it overwhelms our society.

In the US this week, the government’s response to events in New York has been to seek to restrict the Green Card lottery and impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants to make it harder for some foreign nationals to get in to the US.

In Tajikistan, meanwhile, the state’s November 3 declaration aims to make it harder for people to get out of the country and be exposed to what are seen as illegitimate and extreme forms of religion elsewhere.

The perceived solution to the twin threats of terrorism and religious extremism is thus to control borders – but how can this work in a world where ideas, if not people, can be communicated in ways and at speeds that defy any physical border controls?

Until states start to address both the domestic conditions that lead to terrorism and radicalization and begin to work collectively to address the global conditions of today’s world, no amount of border controls or fiery proclamations about terrorism are going to make any difference at all.

 

My top four reports on Uzbekistan, migration and radicalization, New York and its aftermath:

A visual tour of Central Asia’s universities

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I’ve had a small gallery of my pictures of Central Asia’s universities up on this site for a while, and have been meaning to update it after taking lots more photos this summer.

So here we are, for your viewing pleasure (well, mainly for mine), here is a new and updated gallery showcasing just a few of the many and varied universities and colleges in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:

Bureaucracy 2.0: Red tape redux in Tajikistan

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Bureaucracy lives and thrives in the higher education institutions of Central Asia. It may be more than 25 years since the Soviet Union collapsed but the volokita (red tape i.e. bureaucracy) that the USSR was so well known for remains in many social institutions of the formerly Soviet states. Universities are no exception.

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An aerial view of the UCA Khorog campus in its first phase of development (C) University of Central Asia

Opened to great aplomb in September 2017, the second campus of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan follows hot on the heels of the opening of the first campus in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan a year earlier.

Created in 2000, the University of Central Asia (UCA) aims to foster economic and social development in mountainous communities in Central Asia, with a novel model to open three campuses in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Each should attract people from within the countries and from further abroad, provide a “world-class” education (something, it seems, all universities now aspire to), and create a new generation of leaders, business people and so on.

That’s the grand, expensive, and truly remarkable vision for UCA.

The reality of working with the three host states has proved quite different, as recent events exemplify.

Unconfirmed rumours are circulating that UCA won’t in fact be able to run its new courses at the Khorog campus this year because they haven’t got all their documents in order.

Yes, you heard that right.

A state of the art brand new university (I was able to visit the campus shortly before it opened, and can confirm that the facilities are quite outstanding) that has been set up with the explicit purpose of trying to improve life in Tajikistan is being forced to suspend its activities because of a paperwork problem.

A story that started on independent Tajik news agency Asia-Plus’ website on October 6 claimed that not all the documents required to receive a state licence to run a university have been received and as a result, the Ministry of Education and Science has not yet formally given approval for UCA to operate in Tajikistan.

That original story now appears unavailable but another news agency, Ozodagon, took up the story on October 11 [ru], although appeared to have little to add to the facts.

UCA declined to be interviewed by Ozodagon other than to say that the story carried by Asia-Plus was incorrect.

Apparently UCA will continue teaching, either online or by transferring the first Khorog cohort to Naryn, where business continues as usual.

originalWhether or not it is true that UCA’s licence has not been granted (and my reading is that it is not, but that there is likely some truth around the edges), the more important point this story raises is the pervasive nature of bureaucracy in Tajikistan and the related problem of getting a job done.

Where is the incentive to innovate, to set up a small business, bring in foreign investment – or yes, even open a university – when the requirements set by the state for doing so are so difficult and extensive? Of course it’s important that enterprises operating within the jurisdiction of a state adhere to regulations laid out by that state and endeavour to do the best job they can.

But in the case of Tajikistan, the bureaucracy goes too far.

During my fieldwork this summer, I witnessed this first hand. A university administrator was attempting to get a piece of documentation signed off by a Ministry of Education official, and after many months of hard work with many colleagues across the university had the document ready. The document was significant in length and recounted in detail the curriculum plans for that particular institution for the forthcoming academic year.

Despite dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ‘t’s (almost literally), the administrator returned from the visit to the Ministry crestfallen. The civil servant had refused to sign the document.

Why?

Because the document had not quite printed properly and three letters were missing from one word.

The word itself was understandable despite missing the last few letters.

Eventually, after several anguished hours of working out how to fix this without re-printing the document – which had been produced on a special size of paper – a very manual cut and paste job saved the day.

After a second trip to the Ministry, the mandatory signature and stamp were received to the great relief of my administrator colleague.

This entire spectacle appears to solve no purpose other than provide personal satisfaction to the bureaucrat at the Ministry of Education. Look under the surface and there’s a lot more at stake. Corruption – the possibility of making someone’s life so difficult that it’s easier to pay a bribe than go through the legal channels – is high up on the agenda.

The broader political agenda of the Tajik government also plays a role, which is a subject for more detailed discussion another time.

And then there’s the possibility that the two incidents mentioned above merely symbolize an extreme level of bureaucratization of the sort that Weber, in laying out his ideas about the modern rational and technical era over a century ago, could not have begun to imagine.

Does study abroad lead to democracy in former Soviet countries?

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The cat meme is back… You’ve got to admit this is a good one…

These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.

Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).

 

Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.

So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.

As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.

More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:

Maia_1

Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.

Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.

Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:

Maia_2

Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.

Chankseliani has suggested in an article in this week’s Times Higher Education that the experience of studying abroad in democratic societies may act as an “apprenticeship in democracy”.

Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.

This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.

However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.

The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?

Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.

Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.

Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.

Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.

What do you think?

Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?

Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?

Students in charge of universities and other quirks of Kazakh higher education history

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The dashing and extremely busy figure of Temirbek Zhurgenov, who was both student and university leader in the early Soviet period

Did you know that Kazakhstan’s first university was opened in Tashkent – in today’s Uzbekistan?

Or that the its first Rector (Vice-Chancellor) was a final year student?

Or that throughout the Soviet period, there was only ever one university in Kazakhstan’s capital?

All these fun (yes, they are fun!) facts and more can be found in a lighthearted new article by Andrei Mikhailov writing for Kazakhstan’s InformBureau [ru].

The article, which I’ve translated from Russian below, nicely captures the energy and novelty of formal higher education in the early Soviet period.

Lenin’s government couldn’t build institutions fast enough, so Kazakh students (that is, students living on the territory that has since become Kazakhstan) were sent to other parts of the Union, often to the fabulously named Communist Universities.

As an aside, I read an informative article about the Communist Universities earlier this week by Panin and Harlamova КОММУНИСТИЧЕСКИЕ УНИВЕРСИТЕТЫ ДЛЯ НАЦИОНАЛЬНЫХ МЕНЬШИНСТВ Панин Харламова 2012 [ru]. They were set up for “national minorities” and had two purposes: to train political workers for Soviet government work, and to train revolutionaries for other states. Teaching took place in a wide range of languages, from Finnish to Korean. These universities were a short-lived phenomenon, shut down in the second half of the 1930s after Stalin decided that the national question had been solved.

Back to Kazakhstan. Mikhailov suggests that back in the Soviet period, the lack of higher education made it a more valuable commodity than in today’s world of practically universal access to tertiary education. He notes with warm approval that the student to faculty ratio at Kazakh State University was an incredible 2:1 in its initial years, with over half of the faculty bearing Professor or Associate Professor designation. You wouldn’t get that nowadays, Mikhailov wants us to know.

Read on and learn more, and if that’s whetted your appetite for more Central Asian university history, take a look at my previous posts on this topic.

The first Kazakhstani university was opened in Tashket. And its first Rector was a student.

(c) Andrei Mikhailov and Kazakhstan InformBureau; English translation by Emma Sabzalieva

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Kazpedvuz – the Kazakh Teacher Training (Pedagogical) Institute in Tashkent

Today, when higher education in Kazakhstan has become widely available (and, it seems, has lost all meaning), it’s a good time to remember how it all began.

 

Until October 1917 on the territory of modern Kazakhstan, there were only a few gymnasiums [higher schools] (including two in Verny). But there was not a single higher education institution. So until 1928, the highly educated class of Kazakhstanis were trained outside of Kazakhstan.

Our educated intelligentsia were mainly trained in three universities – Turkestan State University, Central Asian Communist University in Tashkent and the Communist Workers University of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. In 1924-25, 927 Kazakhs were trained at Turkestan University, and 100 Kazakh students in Moscow universities.

And our first higher education institute [HEI] – the Kazakh Institute of Education (Kazpedvuz) – was opened in 1926 … in Tashkent. To be fair, it was “especially for Kazakhstan.” It was transferred to Alma-Ata [now Almaty] in 1928 and became the first of our domestic universities – the Kazakh Pedagogical Institute.

Three more HEI followed specializing in veterinary and zootechnical sciences, agricultural sciences and medicine. So, when in 1932 another teacher training institute was established in Uralsk (based on the one transferred from Orenburg), the number of HEIS had grown by five times since 1916!

However, no one at that time could foresee the heyday of higher education that we are witnessing today. Now almost all school leavers are almost automatically enrolling in higher education. Nowadays, wherever you look, you will surely see an academic or someone who can offer some kind of scientific advice. For world science, such an abundance of high-level scientific minds in Kazakhstan is of little importance, but… nevertheless, it’s nice when two seemingly unremarkable Kazakhs meet by chance, and both turn out to be well-known scientists, Doctors of Science [Soviet qualification higher than a PhD], professors, “who made a huge contribution”, etc. etc.

When the first Kazakh Pedagogical Institute was organized in Tashkent, experienced teachers were especially invited from Moscow. (Surprisingly, none refused the invitation!) Among them was, for example, the famous explorer of Central Asia – Professor of Turkology S.E. Malov.

But the most curious thing is that the first rector of Kazpedvuz was… a student, Temirbek Zhurgenov. Zhurgenov studied at SAGU (Central Asian State University), the first HEI in the “Red East”, created five years earlier by the decree of Lenin.

Unlike today’s muddled nomenklatura of “doctors” and self-proclaimed academics, Zhurgenov – even as a student – was very well-known. Even before becoming the rector of Kazpedvuz in his final year of study, he became the plenipotentiary of the Kazakh ASSR in the Republic of Turkestan in his second year. And unlike the rapid career rise of today’s leaders, Zhurgenov’s career development came off the back of a series of good posts – and family money. (It is interesting that Zhurgenov was later also able to find time to Chair the People’s Commissar of Education in Uzbekistan).

The first university in Kazakhstan appeared only in 1934. It was the famous Kazakh State University (KazGU) named after Kirov in the city of Alma-Ata. In the first year, there were only 54 students in its two faculties (physics and biophysics). And for every two students in those years, there was one teacher! And what teachers there were! Amongst the 25 teachers, there were 5 professors and 10 associate professors including those from Moscow State and Kazan State [very prestigious] Universities!

It is interesting that the KazGU was located in the building of the former Verny gymnasium (where Frunze studied). And more interestingly, it was the only university in the capital of the republic all the time that Kazakhstan was part of the USSR. So when students were asked, “Where do you study?”, there was no need to clarify their answer: “At the University!”

Emomali

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The President of Tajikistan (his official title is now somewhat longer and less catchy: The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon) strikes a great pose and can be found in action all over Tajikistan. I’ve saved you the trouble of traipsing around the capital Dushanbe by creating this gallery of posters, taken this summer, purely for your viewing pleasure. No, really, you’re welcome.

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A summer of learning: Fieldwork, conferences, and more in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

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It’s been rather quiet on the blog of late.

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A sneak preview of a new addition to my Central Asian university photo gallery. This beauty is the Kyrgyz State Technical University, formerly the Polytechnic Institute.

Don’t worry – I haven’t run out of ideas to keep the blog going. On the contrary, I probably now have too many. I also have a LOT of new photos of universities to add to my photo gallery (see the bottom right part of the homepage). Bet you can’t wait for that!

The reason for the lower than usual level of activity is that I’ve been doing fieldwork for my PhD thesis over the last two months.

This has involved meeting with over 30 wonderful academics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and spending a time with each of them discussing their personal experiences of working in higher education since the late Soviet period.

I have learned so much from my respondents and am incredibly grateful to each of them, not just for their time, but also for their willingness to share their own stories with me. Once I am back in Canada next month, I will need to spend time reflecting on these interviews and making sure I do justice to the rich data I have been able to gather.

All the interviews have been anonymised so I can’t thank people publicly – but they know who they are. Thank you. Спасибо.

In addition to doing these interviews, I’ve also been selected to present at three conferences, one in each country.

At the joint ESCAS-CESS conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, I organized a panel on The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education, presenting the paper Conceptualizing change in post-Soviet higher education. I also convened a roundtable on to discuss the future for higher education in the post-Soviet space. Read more about the conference here.

In July, I was invited to present at a conference on Tradition and change in a contemporary world in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a very fitting theme for my thesis work on change (and stability), although at the request of the conference organizer, the paper I presented drew on my earlier comparative work on the UK and Canada and was entitled Connecting history with contemporary identity in higher education. The article that this paper is based on can be found here.

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Presenting at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, August 2017

Finally, here in Astana, Kazakhstan, I am pleased to have presented today (19 August) at the first annual conference of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.

My paper was Public policy and higher education reform in Central Asia, which discusses how the world-class university has become a global public policy strategy for higher education.

Although this is an excellent example of policy convergence, I argue that Kazakhstan’s strategy in creating Nazarbayev University offers a creative shift to this world-class university model: one that embraces the dominant global university model whilst at the same time transforming it to be useful and applicable for other purposes. You can read my related article on this subject here.

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Nazarbayev University, impressive as heck.

The conference was themed around good governance and attracted a diverse array of international presenters. Each of the presentations I was able to see added something new to my understanding of governance and public policy, from thinking about the state as a supplier of institutions for economic diversification in Kazakhstan (by Zhanat Murzakulova) to learning more about the implications of informal institutions for post-Soviet education systems (by Dr Dina Sharipova), and a lot more in between.

 

And last but not least, in amongst all the interviews and conferences and photographing university buildings, it’s been absolutely wonderful to catch up with family and friends. Being dispersed so globally can have its downsides, so it makes the moments of being together even more special.

What a great summer.