Who Says Syria’s Calling? Why It Is Sometimes Better to Admit That We Just Do Not Know, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report on the radicalization of Muslims in Central Asia, Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia (20 Jan 2015), focuses specifically on the recruitment of Central Asians to Islamic State (IS) and the consequences of this phenomenon for the region’s security. This short report repeats the ungrounded assumptions of earlier reports, as identified in a Chatham House paper we published in November 2014. It argues that recruitment is higher than previously thought, that attraction to violent extremism is found in the ”devout” who demand a greater public role for religion, and that the return of such people “risk[s] challenging security and stability throughout Central Asia” (p. 1).

The report’s assumed relationship between Islamization and radicalization, and the claim that both are ideological processes spurred by economic disadvantage, makes all pious Muslims potential followers of IS. However, as we have argued, there is no evidence for this claim in Central Asia. Furthermore, the very concept of radicalization is incoherent and disputed. Even in the UK or US, where the environment is more conducive to research, there is disagreement as to who are most susceptible to radicalization: rich or poor, recent immigrants or native-born citizens, the well educated or the ill informed, political entrepreneurs or those with mental health problems. In short, we know almost nothing about the causes of “radicalization,” despite the many millions of dollars that have been poured into research projects on the subject.

Syria Calling therefore appeals to received wisdom, not evidence and logic, to make its argument that IS’s purported success in the region is a consequence of the general ills of society. Given that ICG’s work is some of the best of its genre, based on fieldwork by experts working in the region, this is a strong assertion, and we do not make it lightly.

Therefore, let us consider in more detail the sources used to support ICG’s argument and the logic of the inferences drawn. Consider the following quotation, which links the very small number who have joined IS to the general Muslim population in a matter of a few sentences:

IS sympathisers in Central Asia are motivated by an extremist religious ideology and inspired by the ruthless application of severe social and political order that they interpret as reflecting moral strength. The growth of radical tendencies is exacerbated by poor religious education and grievances against the region’s secular governments. Radicalization also spreads partly because economic and political opportunities are scarce. Islamic organizations offer social services that Central Asian states do not adequately provide, such as education, childcare and welfare for vulnerable families (page 7).

The second, third, and fourth sentences refer to interviews with supposed radicals, experts, and officials as the main sources used to support the claims made.

There are at least four problems with how interviews are used in the report.

  1. Factual claims are dubious and/or unsubstantiated.

A case in point is the claim regarding the number of recruits. For example, 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. Given that routes to Syria are clandestine and typically run through several countries, it is not clear how any expert or institution can possibly know with any certainty how many recruits there are.

  1. The declared motivations of “IS sympathizers” are taken as causal explanations.

Given how difficult and dangerous it is to meet with such people in the authoritarian contexts of Central Asia, this handful of interviews apparently adds a degree of authenticity to the report. However, the failure to distinguish declared motivation from causation is highly problematic. Since almost all Central Asians face the conditions summarized above, and many express frustration with government and lack of opportunities, the fact that a tiny minority of the region’s 50 million Muslims are drawn to IS or other violent groups means that grievance is merely the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the tip is often a very poor guide to the shape of the whole.

  1. The opinions of experts and officials are uncritically cited as fact.

Central Asian experts and officials are quoted uncritically as authentic sources of information. Reports on regional websites that draw on arguments made by Central Asian governments are used liberally and taken at face value. Often, however, they actually reflect Soviet-style themes of materialism, religion-as-national-culture, and scientific atheism; according to these precepts, poverty is identified as a cause of radicalization and religion as a threat. Many assertions are made along these lines, such as that Issyk Kul (in Kyrgyzstan) is particularly prone to radicalization because the tourist season only lasts three months, and that the only choice facing youth is to ”start drinking or become religious” (p. 7, fn. 45). Not only are such testimonies unconvincing, these officials and many experts are not in any way independent. Elsewhere in the report, in discussing policy responses, they are dismissed as “often from the communist-educated urban elite” who need retraining to distinguish ”between piety and radicalization” (p. 12). But it is the same ideologically driven political analysis that informs both policy response (which is challenged) and political analysis (which is not only accepted but serves as one of the primary sources for the report’s claims).

  1. The anonymity of all interviewees makes it impossible to judge their reliability.

It is simply patronizing to assume that locally based scholars are reliable. In reality, as any researcher who has spent a significant amount of time in the region knows, while some are genuine experts with years of ethnographic research under their belts, others are talking heads who have never done proper fieldwork in their lives. Unfortunately, it is often the latter who are more likely to speak out on this issue. The anonymity of all interviewees cited in ICG reports makes it impossible to assess their reliability and hold them to account for their generalizations about the IS threat. The very few genuine experts in the region are invisible. In some cases it is necessary to maintain anonymity in order to protect sources. In other cases, independent scholars are happy to go on the record even when their views are somewhat controversial. Without any on-the-record citation, however, the credibility of the claims being made remains uncertain.

So what?

These concerns regarding the paucity of reliable evidence suggest that interviews with officials, experts, and witnesses are not enough to shed light on the causes and effects of IS recruitment in Central Asia. But it may be the best that can currently be achieved in terms of an analysis of the problem of IS in the region.

Surely we should recognize these basic facts and cut the beleaguered ICG some slack?  The report recognizes that risks from radicalization are in their infancy and that there is a danger that Central Asian governments will exaggerate it (p. 14). Like most ICG reports, this one is a mixed bag of questionable claims and cautious caveats. However, the authors cannot be let off the hook that easily.

Unfortunately, suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights lead to adverse consequences—in this case for the Muslims of Central Asia who are publicly and politically active in practicing their faith. The long quotation cited above links IS recruiters with organizations such as Tablighi Jamaat, the so-called Akromiya movement active in the Uzbek city of Andijon before the massacre there in 2005, and the Islamic Revival part of Tajikistan. Indeed, it is the welfare and outreach activities of these nonviolent movements that seem to be referred to implicitly in that paragraph.

If the analysis in Syria Calling is correct, the adherents of these and other pious movements are all potential enemies of the state. Although the report makes an abstract distinction between piety and radicalization in one section, elsewhere its authors clearly identify piety and Islamic social welfare as the thin end of the wedge of radicalization.

ICG recommends a moderate response by Central Asian governments, perhaps along the lines of Denmark’s re-education and resettlement program (p. 10). Leaving to one side the question of whether it is realistic to imitate Danish policy, if the religious and ideological factors that ICG identifies are the actual causes of IS recruitment, then such a response by Central Asian governments would in fact be woefully inadequate. The problem would be urgent and extreme; draconian measures of internment, à la Guantanamo, could and perhaps would be justified. For the hardliners, reports like this are a gift, not a challenge.

Less is better

Fortunately, those of us with liberal consciences have very good reason to doubt ICG’s shorthand explanation for radicalization and therefore do not have to face the awkward question of whether repression of all unsanctioned religion in public life is necessary on security grounds. Given that such reports legitimize tyrannical state responses toward religious minorities, it is comforting that the more credible stance is to admit that we know very little about the IS problem in Central Asia.

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—and, in Denmark at least, to take a restorative approach—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.

John Heathershaw is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Exeter and Principal Investigator for the ESRC Research Project: Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia.

David W. Montgomery (ISSRPL 2003) is CEDAR Director of Program Development and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.


This post is part of CEDAR’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), George Washington University, and the University of Exeter in organizing a two-part conference on “Islam, Secularism and Security in Central Asia and Beyond,” part of a British Council USA Bridging Voices dialogue.

9 responses on “Who Says Syria’s Calling? Why It Is Sometimes Better to Admit That We Just Do Not Know, by John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery

  1. ISHANESU SEXTUS GUSHA

    That is a thoughtful argument. Surely we don’t know much about the IS problem, hence we need to be humble enough and engage them as a way of understanding their problem better. Thank you for such critical and reflective thinking

    1. John Heathershaw

      Thank you Ishanesu for your comment. ‘Radicalization’ is one of those topics which is talked about a lot but understood only a little.

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