Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have not only devastated countries in that region, but also drawn tens of thousands of fighters from abroad. The international community has tried to understand and find solutions to why people join distant conflicts and sympathize with violent extremist causes, and how to respond to their eventual return.
In Central Asia, several thousand men and women have gone abroad to join conflicts or begun supporting violent extremism at home. But data about the root causes of violent extremism in Central Asia is scarce, and evidence either unreliable or subjective.
In 2017, when we started designing a regional project on prevention of violent extremism (PVE) in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, every new read resulted in more questions. How could we design an effective program?
After many discussions, it was clear that the combination of factors leading to violent extremism can be the same in the region, yet the context in each country dictated the order, mix and level of criticality of each factor differently in each community.
We came up with a project that focuses on building community resilience and gives us enough flexibility to adapt our approach depending on the needs of communities.
Here a few key lessons we learned in Tajikistan in our first year:
Context matters: Factors leading to violent extremism are not well studied in Central Asia. Research focusing on a particular country or issue is used to make generalizations for the region. Despite Tajikistan being a homogenous nation with the absolute majority being Tajik and Muslim, the context that determines violent extremism factors is actually community specific, depending on a wide range of factors. For instance, in historically poor regions, local communities view the economic factors, such as lack of income and jobs, to be the main reason – which supports the popular perception. But more prosperous and educated people also join. In wealthier regions, the poor and middle class are more vulnerable to personal grievances, inequalities and exclusion. There, economic factors tend to play a secondary role.
There’s more to violent extremism than just religion: News about terrorist attacks are often linked to Islam, but the link between the religion and VE is not as straightforward as it may seem. Discussions with the Tajik communities showed that historically conservative and religious regions actually tend to have fewer number of people convicted for terrorism related charges. On the contrary, it is the regions which traditionally had not been religious and started to become conservative years after Tajikistan’s independence that seem to be more vulnerable to violent extremist movements.
Labour migration matters, but not as expected: One of the main generalizations, at least in Tajikistan, is that labour migration is a key factor in recruitment to violent extremist organizations. However, looking beyond the surface suggests that only a small number of the labour migrants end up joining violent extremist organizations (a ratio of 1:1001).
For those that do join, the lack of jobs isn’t necessarily the tipping point. Tajik labour migrants rely on networks to decide on their destination. But because this group is unskilled and the majority migrate right after secondary school, these networks are small and don’t guarantee a decent job. They often join the informal employment sector, which can mean low pay, exploitation and rights violations. This added vulnerability can enhance their sense of exclusion, making them more susceptible to violent extremist recruitment.
Domestic violence is a result and a cause: In Tajikistan, domestic violence is widespread, but even more common in families of those who joined violent extremist organisations. As is the case in other parts of the world, the women and children left behind often become the victims of domestic violence. A changing pattern of divorce may indicate women’s growing intolerance to the violence. But, divorced women may actually be more vulnerable to joining extremist organizations since they are unable to secure decent jobs due to their limited education and experience.
Local presence is critical: Tapping into existing and often well-functioning systems and partnerships put in place as part of previous development initiatives in Tajikistan not only saves time, but more importantly adds to a long-term impact. Local partners’ knowledge of their communities was critical to reach our target groups and develop solutions tailored to their needs.
These lessons are important because preventing violent extremism requires an integrated approach, joint action, trust and continuity to maximize impact and ‘do no harm’.
Since we are dealing with psychological processes, we know it will take years before we understand the impact on the lives of those remaining at home. With evidence and data scarce, not just in the region but on PVE interventions in general, we need to learn by doing and continue to reflect on our successes and shortcomings in the process.
With each community and individual teaching us a new lesson, we are sure the list will grow as we work on development solutions to this pressing issue.