Events Transcripts

Sergey Abashin – Central Asian Migrants in Russia: Will there be a Religious Radicalization?


Summary of the presentation by Sergey Abashin, Professor, Department of Anthropology at the European University at St.Petersburg, Doctor of Science in History, Named Professor of Migration Studies (British Petroleum Professorship)  at the Central Asia Program, George Washington University, April 4, 2017


Religious radicalization among Central Asian migrants to Russia has raised attention in regards to active recruitment by the ‘Islamic State’. Sergey Abashin’s timely talk took place a day after a terrorist attack by Kyrgyz-born Akbarzhon Jalilov in St. Petersburg. Russian security forces arrested several migrants from Central Asia in the days that followed. A synopsis of Abashin’s talk follows below.

For Russia, migration and terrorism are intertwined discourses which shape and are shaped by academia, the social milieu, and the media, and are translated through economic and political issues and election cycles. Migration discourses center around what is Russian, nationality, and nation, and who is Russian. Experts and politicians often use pejoratives to discuss migrants from Central Asia. While the April attack was the first ever carried out by Central Asians on Russian territory, alarm over the religious radicalization of Central Asian migrants traveled across the globe.

Islam in Russia is viewed as foreign to Russia, and as being in Russia only because migrants bring it there. Therefore, Islam is equated with migration. Islam is viewed as a problem, and because migration is viewed as the bearer of Islam, migration is likewise perceived as a problem.

Central Asian regimes are also viewed as a problem in Russia, and migration is believed to stem from these problematic regimes. The discourse around radicalization is attached to ideas of ‘religious’ (Islamic) radicalization and extremism. Therefore, these ideas, combined with Central Asia migration trends and geopolitics, lay the foundations for the idea that problems stem from Central Asian migration to Russia.

Abashin posed two key questions: 1) Does migration cause radicalization? and 2) Does Islam cause radicalization? He analyzed the theories that are commonly used to answer these questions and discussed the flaws these theories harbor.
Analysis of current events, particularly terror events, is often tied to three key themes indistinguishable from the migration phenomenon. First, the personal clothing and styles of Central Asian migrants make them different than what is considered Russian. Second, personal religious practices, like prayer, fasting, or abstaining from alcohol, set many Central Asian migrants apart from what is considered Russian behavior. Third, the two main Muslim holidays, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, draw large crowds to the mosques and are portrayed as a spectacle of who and what is not Russian. While religious practice and dress do not equate with radicalization, people are suspicious of any visible display of Muslimness.

Abashin posed two key questions: 1) Does migration cause radicalization? and 2) Does Islam cause radicalization? He analyzed the theories that are commonly used to answer these questions and discussed the flaws these theories harbor.

Does migration cause radicalization?

Hypothesis: The underdevelopment of Central Asia countries and migration cause radicalization. This hypothesis proposes that poor people from rural areas, with little education, are radicalized during migration. They are forced to migrate because of underdevelopment, and migration causes a rupture in rural life traditions and family ties. Migrants are unable to assimilate; they live in Russia’s ghettos, isolated from social ties, and thus experience difficulties and extraordinary pressures and stress. Isolated migrants turn to conservative Islamic practices to support them in developing an identity and position in society, which leaves them vulnerable to radicalization.

Reality: Migration from Central Asia has been become embedded in Russia for more than twenty years. If the underdevelopment of Central Asian countries caused radicalization, there would be higher rates of radicalization. Religion is only one aspect of identity among migrants. This hypothesis overemphasizes religion, making it the pivotal aspect of migrant identity and migration processes.

Reality: The second flaw is the idea that migrants become detached from traditions and rural life, leaving them vulnerable. The reality is that most migrants do not plan on staying in Russia; they are still tied to networks at home and expend effort to build social capital at home while in Russia. Migrants have social mobility and are keenly aware of their status at home. They are often younger family members (it is rare for families to migrate together) who have responsibilities to their homes. For example, 47% of migrants from Uzbekistan are aged between 18 and 20. Migration is a family decision, negotiated among extended family members, and is an “important household strategy.” The behavior of migrants in Russia continues to be policed by family members at home. Migrants send money to maintain social ties and family status. They view this as a religious duty and responsibility.

Does Islam cause radicalization?

Hypothesis: Migration leads to an increase in religiosity and radicalization. This hypothesis supposes that there is a baseline of religiosity before migration, and that this baseline changes in Russia. The other assumption is that religion is the only factor in radicalization.

Reality: Central Asians encompass a broad range of religious affiliations, beliefs, and practices. There is no baseline of religiosity before migration. The balance of religiosity shifts and changes throughout life. However, during migration, some people do not change their religious practice, some become more religious, and others less so. Environment plays a role: for example, the North Caucasus region of Russia is more religious, so migrants are likely to become more religious there. Migrants strategically combine and adopt practices that are conducive to greater earning potential. Not drinking can be an advantage to employers, however fasting during Ramadan may make labor more difficult, so not fasting may be an adaptive change.

Reality: Many factors play into radicalization and extremism; religion is one factor and should not be viewed as the only factor. Other factors include where in Russia migrants are working, what environment they are working in, and the influence of people around them. Migrants are not radicalized alone, but through and with social networks. The internet plays a big role; recruitment is relational rather than done in isolation.

Religious changes have more to do with the process of return from migration than the process of leaving home. Young men become responsible adults. Successful migration includes generosity as part of correct religious behavior. Remittances are often spent on mosque construction or other places which portray religious dedication. An increase in religiosity is not caused by rupture from family and home, but, on the contrary, is an effect of close family ties and increasing stability.

While there is a pattern of increased religiosity based in the process of return, radicalization has no direct or logical pattern. One commonality might be family rupture and a break in close family ties, and the family’s inability to police behavior. However, each case of radicalization should be analyzed on its own, without generalizations. Generalizations lead to poor analysis which portrays migrant workers as terrorists. In reality, of the 3 million Central Asian migrants in Russia, only around 5000 have gone to Syria.

Finally, referencing John Heathershaw and David Montgomery’s paper, “The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics,” Abashin agreed that the evidence does not support high rates of radicalization in Central Asia. In analyzing the place of religion in migrants’ identity and practices, the types of religiosity, and the potential increase in radicalization, Abashin’s timely talk added nuance and understanding to the role migration plays in radicalization.

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