Central Asia, Uzbekistan in particular, has been widely discussed in Sweden because of the terrorist attack in Stockholm on April 7th, 2017. Since then, the major news outlets in Sweden such as Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet have linked terrorism to Uzbekistan and generally Central Asia.[1] In other words, it is said that the regime creates grounds for radical extremism. The analysis of how the Swedish mass media constructs Central Asia infers that the region is prone to widespread radicalization, terrorist activities, and fundamentalism. But is this really the case? Do the regimes in Central Asia create grounds for extremism and fundamentalism? Well, yes and no. There are two major camps, or groups that have conflicting opinions about it.

The first camp claims that Central Asia is the cradle of Islamic radicalization. This camp consists of scholars, mass media, and international organizations such as International Crisis Group and they name a lot of reasons as to why radicalization takes place in Central Asia. These are: absence of democracy and economic opportunities, poverty, injustice and oppression, underdevelopment, rise of Islamic organizations as service providers, migration, and many others.[2]

The second camp questions whether radical Islam exists in its form as it is claimed by the first camp. They also claim that there is no connection between radicalization and poverty, or underdevelopment. Plus, they also question if the religion itself is a problem? Or does the belief in democracy and reliable state make people less religious?[3] For example in Kyrgyzstan, people look to Islam for identity and authority that usually leads to discussions around public morality and governmental reforms rather than violent rebellion and extremism.[4]

The first camp also claims that people are being radicalized in Central Asia. There is no significant evidence to back up this claim either. If we talk in “per capita” terms, Russia, Europe and the United States of America have significantly higher number of terrorists than in Central Asia.[5]

Noah Tucker’s research on radicalization of Central Asian migrants in Russia found out that the majority of people with Central Asian origins were not radicalized in Central Asia, but in Russia.[6] Partly the problem lies within the states in Central Asia too, in their attitude towards the so-called radicalization. Muslim population of Central Asia practices their religion through Hanafi, a religious school that is apolitical, peaceful and tolerant.[7] During the period of 2001-2013, only 0.1% percent of global terrorist attacks were linked to Central Asia, while the region constitutes 1% of the world’s population. [8]

Countries in Central Asia use radicalization to protect their powers and oppress any kind of opposition. For this sake, a lot of assumptions are made about the drivers behind radicalization, but these are not based on research and evidence, which affects all religious groups that are perceived dangerous. These include terrorist organizations, but also conservative missionary groups that are peaceful.[9] In other words, crackdown on religion does not solve the problem, but creates favorable conditions for radical groups to recruit and delude potential members. But, if countries in Central Asia are authoritarian and the so-called flight against radicalization is used to oppress all kinds of opposition, does it mean that these very countries in Central Asia enhance radicalization in the region? Radical Islam does not exist in Central Asia in the way that it is depicted by international organizations and mass media. Figures, numbers and causes do not correlate to reality. Thus, radicalization in Central Asia is a myth, but it is a myth that is unjustifiably exaggerated and twisted by the states themselves![10]

Now, think about why it is important to know? If one does not question mainstream thoughts about Central Asia and radicalization, we might end up with absurd situations such as one, where the US national security analysis tried to predict the influence of Iran on Central Asia back in 1993.[11] It falsely predicted creation of the Islamic mega state that covers the region of Central Asia. This never happened! In 2015, shoplifters in Kazakhstan were accused on financing terrorism.[12] The list of absurd situations goes on, and will continue to grow, unless a more nuanced approach to drivers behind radicalization and extremism is taken.

Written by: Viktor Romanov, information coordinator at Centralasiengrupperna
Animation by: Mikhail Lebedev, Slick Animation Studio

List of literature used:

[1] Centralasiengrupperna. 2018.  ”Centralasien i svensk medierapportering – en diskursanalys” https://issuu.com/centralasiengrupperna/docs/discourse_analysis

[2] Heathershow, J. and Montgomery, D.W. 2014. ‘The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics’, The Royal Institute of International Affairs: Chatham House, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20141111P ostSovietRadicalizationHeathershawMontgomery.pdf

[3] “Understanding Islamic Radicalization in Central Asia”, The Diplomat, January 20, 2017. Accessed February, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/understanding-islamic-radicalization-in-central-asia/

[4] Ibid

[5] Nasritdinov, Emil. “Radicalization and Central Asia.” Interview by Viktor Romanov, June 24th, 2017

[6] Lemon, Edward. and Heathershaw, John. “How can we explain radicalisation among Central Asia’s migrants?” Open Democracy Russia and Beyond, May 17, 2017. Accessed February 22, 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/edward-lemon-john-heathershaw/can-we-explain-radicalisation-among-central-asia-s-migrants

[7] Facts and Details. 2016. “Religion and Islam in Central Asia” http://factsanddetails.com/central-asia/Central_Asian_Topics/sub8_8f/entry-4523.html

[8] Heathershow, J. and Montgomery, D.W. ‘The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics’, The Royal Institute of International Affairs: Chatham House, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20141111P ostSovietRadicalizationHeathershawMontgomery.pdf

[9] Sarah, Lain. Strategies for countering terrorism and extremism in Central Asia” Asian Affairs, October 24, 2017 Accessed May, 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03068374.2016.1225899

[10] Nasritdinov, Emil. “Radicalization and Central Asia.” Interview by Viktor Romanov, June 24th, 2017

[11] Ehteshami, Anoushiravan. From The Gulf To Central Asia: Players In The New Great Game. Exeter: University of Exeter, 1994

[12] Sarah, Lain. Strategies for countering terrorism and extremism in Central Asia” Asian Affairs, October 24, 2017 Accessed May, 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03068374.2016.1225899