study abroad

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:

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?

New publication: Who are Tajikistan’s international students?

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HERB_12_cover.jpg.(200x-x123)Who leaves Tajikistan to study abroad, and why?

Where do these students go, and what do they study?

What are their post-study destinations?

These are some of the questions I address in my new essay on Tajikistan’s international students, out today in Higher Education in Russia & Beyond (HERB).

You can find out more about the survey on which this essay is based in earlier blog posts (in five parts): part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5.

As I conclude, studying abroad can be a profoundly transformational experience. Many of the people that participated in the research I am reporting on said they had changed greatly as a result of their experiences.

This feeling is neatly encapsulated by the words of one respondent:

“I am so much [a] different person now than I was back then. Education here has broadened my mind to the things that I had no idea of their existence and as I grow in possessing my knowledge I see the opportunities that I can get, and the things that I can do in my life and with my life. I am [a] much happier person now than I was before.”

This issue of HERB looks holistically at international students across the former Soviet space, and I encourage you to take a look at the other essays in this collection.

Higher Education in Russia & Beyond 2(12) – link to whole issue

The power of education: A journey from the mountains of Khorog, Tajikistan, to a world stage

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Muslima Niyozmamadova, a high school student from Tajikistan studying at the Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa, Kenya, is a powerful and uplifting example of how one person’s journey in life can drive them to seek change and how education can provide the tools to make that change. Niyozmamadova has made two big moves already in her short years, firstly with her family being relocated from their home owing to the construction of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan. Some years later she journeyed further, uprooting herself to a different country, culture and context to pursue her education in Kenya. I suspect she has a long way still to go, and I mean that in only positive terms.

Her story is reproduced in full below so you can share a sense of not just how powerful education can be, but how much we can all learn from this one young person.

(c) Education Week

Today we hear from Muslima Niyozmamadova, a high school student at Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa in Kenya. Issues of poor educational quality in her native country of Tajikistan inspired her to work to improve schooling in impoverished areas of the world. We hope this series of posts by students who are taking action to better the world through participation in the Global Citizens Youth Summit will be an inspiration to you and your students as well.

by guest blogger Muslima Niyozmamadova

Global citizenship means an awareness of the issues in my community as well as those faced by the world. My role as a global citizen is to promote positive change by trying to solve global problems. I am responsible for my city, country, and the world.

When I was six years old, my family moved to accommodate construction of the University of Central Asia in Khorog, Tajikistan. My family talked about how the university would become one of the best in the world. I was proud that the new university was being built where my family had lived. Even as a young child, education was important to me. I decided that I would one day become the head of the University of Central Asia. At the age of seven, I attended the only school in Badakhshan, the eastern part of Tajikistan. The school offered all subjects in English. I felt that learning the language was my first step towards achieving my dream.

A few years later, I was accepted to the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa (AKA), one of the best secondary schools in the world, with a full scholarship. I applied to the school as it gave me the opportunity to become globally competent and prepare me better as a leader. While a student at AKA, I began studying the education system in Tajikistan. I was surprised to learn that Tajikistan’s literacy rate is 98%. However, few Tajiks qualify for professional jobs outside of Tajikistan because students learn basic proficiency in reading, but do not hone other skills needed to be successful workers, such as internationally qualified doctors, engineers, lawyers etc. I began to connect how poverty is linked to the quality of education.

As a participant at the Global Citizens Youth Summit in Cambridge, MA, I had the unique opportunity to engage in conversations with peers from around the world on issues of education and poverty. This experience helped me to build the global skills and confidence necessary to work toward a solution to these issues in my community. With my peers, I developed an initiative called YOUTHeory, which strives to ensure that children from low-income communities thrive in their early years of development. Our mission is to empower young people to exceed their circumstances through self-discovery and identifying their passions in life. We believe that education is the means of breaking the cycle of poverty. For children to thrive, they need resources, direction, and purpose. Together, my peers and I strive to provide these resources to children in different parts of the world.

Having a sesison with the students about techniques of studying effectively[1].jpeg

Since I attend school in Kenya, I decided to implement my project in the local community in Mombasa. I began working with a government school in the lower income area of the city. Eight of my peers from AKA support my work. My group and I have led workshop based sessions with the 140 students at their school on topics like the importance of education, effective study techniques, goal setting, good hygiene, and water conservation. We either go to their school after our classes to spend about two hours with them every two weeks, or we bring them to our school in groups of 50 over the weekends. Aside from academic sessions, we try and engage the students in sports, crochet, and board games. In addition, we raised money for the school to replace a broken water pump, which will give students access to clean water. We also held a clothing drive at AKA and shared these donations with the students in need at the school. My group also works with students to identify their passions through sports and games. In the future, I plan to donate solar panels to provide sustainable and reliable energy to the school. I am also working to identify sponsors who might donate breakfast to the kindergarten students (200 students) every morning. Without these donations, the students go hungry.

Over the coming summer, a leadership camp, Global Encounters (GE), will take place in my school. Because the camp aims to encourage students to engage in community service, I have handed my project to them to continue the work that I have done, as I believe it is crucial to have sustainability to really make a difference. My school falls under the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) which has done several development projects across Kenya. The Service Coordinator of GE has been able to connect with the Ministry of Education of the country and has communicated YOUTHeory vision to him. He was highly impressed by what we do, and therefore, wants us to be the bridge between the government and the individual schools. Many of our visions are similar to the plans of the government, like the focus on Early Childhood Development (ECD) and giving students motivation and support to continue with their education up to secondary school and university. One of the other focuses of the ministry of education is encouraging environmental awareness in the country, and he is trying to achieve this through the youth in schools. We are looking forward to making both our and the country’s visions for education a reality, and with the support of the government, we will reach great heights with this project.

During the Celebration of Service Day in school, I will be advertising my project to get younger students to join so that the project can be continued even when I leave in 2017 to go university. After a few years, I see myself launching YOUTheory in Tajikistan for children from low-income families. I want to continue empowering children to succeed against the odds. Moving forward, I will continue to work towards my goal of serving as the head for the University of Central Asia. Education is a basic right for children, whether they live in Kenya or Tajikistan or elsewhere. If we want a more equitable and harmonious world, we must all consider how we can help a child to learn how to act as a global citizen.

For all the youth across the world who wish to make a difference in the world, I want to tell you that it all starts from identifying the issues in your community and taking an initiative to contribute to the prevention or solution of the problem. It is important to go deep into the issue and find the root causes first, as this is the best way to tackle the issue, although it might take the longest time. Base your project mainly on sustainable development instead of on giving aid or charity. I believe the moment you plan to make a difference in your community you will be on the right path to becoming global citizens.

Kyrgyz MBA graduates aim to motivate and inspire others

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So, you’re one of the very few Kyrgyzstanis to have completed an MBA at a top American business school. What are you going to do about it?

Judging by the two graduates interviewed by Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz arm, Radio Azattyk, the answer is simple: share what you’ve learnt and try and inspire your compatriots to go and do the same themselves. That’s the story that Kumar Bekbolotov and Seyitbek Usmanov tell – the article is in Russian; my English translation Mentors from Kyrgyzstan MBA is attached.

Their group, Kyrgyzstan MBA (slogan: “We could do it, and so can you”), is a great example of a grassroots initiative supporting further professional education in Kyrgyzstan, encouraging people to set their standards high and work hard. The article that describes Bekbolotov and Usmanov’s stories is also interesting for highlighting the growing variety of permutation of MBAs. These days, an MBA doesn’t have to be just a hardcore business qualification, but can also allow you to specialise in particular areas such as corporate social responsibility, or, in my case, higher education management.

The Kyrgyzstan MBA website features some good advice for applicants, and rouses national pride with this great note added at the end:

Wait until you go to the US embassy for a visa and [see] the face of the consul who learns that you are going to one of those [top business] schools (Kyrgyz anthem in your head).

Kyrgyzstanis, go forth and conquer the world of the ‘b-school’!

The benefits of the ‘near abroad’ – educational exchange in former Soviet states

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The ‘near abroad’ is a Russian conception, describing countries that used to be part of or have close ties to the Soviet Union, as distinguished from the ‘far abroad’ countries that we might otherwise call ‘the rest of the world’. Although Russian language usage is diminishing in Central Asian states, in part owing to state-building government tendencies to enhance the standing of national languages, Russian remains either an official or a widely used language in these countries (source: One World Nations Online).

The continuing importance of the Russian language enables the promotion of cooperation and opportunities in higher education for Central Asian states and nations. Just today I’ve read two reports on educational exchanges within the former Soviet sphere:

  • The development of linkages between Belarus and Tajikistan [en], as reported by Belarusian News. These government-level links began with professional development for Tajik civil servants and the most recent press release focusses on cooperation between the countries’ Academies/Institutes of Public Administration. The cooperation will cover research and conferences, training and staff/student exchanges, thus both sharing and building up expertise on both sides. (Just don’t mention ‘academic freedom’…)
  • A very proud-sounding press release from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, usually known by its rhythmic Russian acronym MGIMO, on its recent attendance at the Education and Careers Fair in Almaty, Kazakhstan [ru]. The report mentions participation by universities and employers from 15 countries, most of which are ‘near abroad’ but with a smattering of other countries thrown in.

Of particular interest about the MGIMO report was its note that attendees were particularly interested in its English language courses. This reflects the growth of a different kind of study abroad option for Central Asian students: one in which students enhance their academic and English language skills but in an environment that is not entirely unfamiliar. For many years the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan and KIMEP in Kazakhstan have supported students to stay in the region and to study in English; now it seems that trend is expanding with students seeking opportunities in Russia, eastern Europe and Asia (e.g Malaysia and Singapore).

Study abroad – what happens next?

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Kazakh newspaper The Astana Times has this week published a story featuring three Bolashak scholarship holders to understand what happens once they return to Kazakhstan.

The Bolashak Scholarships are the Kazakh government’s flagship scholarship programme, and have sent over 10,000 students abroad to study at top universities around the world. Although a condition of the scholarship is that students must return to Kazakhstan to work for at least five years for any private or public sector company or the state, it’s estimated that around half of the scholars have not [yet] made it back home.

The Astana Times article focuses on a small number of students who have returned. They all suggest that the scholarship has been instrumental in improving their career prospects, although they perhaps hadn’t realised the impact it would have when they were applying for jobs.

There’s always a difficult balance to be found when an organisation wishes to support students to continue their studies outside their home country but then requires them to return. I think this is particularly the case if the student is moving from a poorer to a richer country (by which I mean ‘rich’ in a wide sense, in that the education system may be better developed, career prospects may be broader, etc) where the pull factors of remaining in the host country may out-number the push factors encouraging a student to return home. But I’ve also seen students stay in the UK who come from countries where the career prospects are just as good because whilst here they set down roots – such as enjoying living in a particular city or establishing a relationship with someone – that provide more compelling reasons to stay.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that by offering students the opportunity to study abroad, at least some will choose to stay away in the short-term. Governments and other funding bodies should focus their efforts on keeping in touch with their scholarship alumni, encouraging them to continue to develop their skills so that at some point in the future these can be applied for the benefit of their home country.