The recent attempt by Central Asian states to bring home dozens of their citizens who joined the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria has renewed the debate over the root causes of extremism in the region.
Some experts say the countries need to do more to dissuade their citizens from traveling abroad to fight for violent militant groups.
Last month, former Soviet states began a repatriation process for hundreds of their citizens. Kazakhstan brought home 231 nationals; Uzbekistan retrieved 156; and Tajikistan returned 84. Authorities said the majority of those repatriated are children and women, and the process will continue to bring home hundreds of others stranded in Syria and Iraq.
Daniel Balson, Amnesty International's advocacy director of Europe and Central Asia, told VOA the rights watchdog is keeping a close eye to ensure that the rights of women and children are respected. He said arbitrary detention and violations of religious freedom represent a common challenge across Central Asia. As such, many of their citizens view government measures as furthering repression, not fighting extremism.
"Amnesty International has long highlighted the mistreatment of family members with real or perceived ties to the so-called Islamic State, and condemned any forms of collective punishment against them," said Balson.
Governments across the region are criticized by rights organization for what they call stringent limits on religious practices. Many governments across the region retain tight control over who can become a religious leader. Congregations often must undergo burdensome registration processes. Additionally, religious materials and practices such as wearing the hijab are frequently banned or censored.
"Unsurprisingly, this heavy-handed approach inspires a degree of public skepticism towards 'state-approved' religious institutions, which many view as co-opted and corrupt. Ironically, this approach, which is officially designed to curb extremist beliefs, risks engendering them," Balson added.
In the past, governments in Central Asia have acknowledged that thousands of their citizens have traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to fight alongside jihadist groups.
6,000 Central Asians
In July 2018, a report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) found that about 6,000 foreigners, consisting of men, women, and children affiliated with IS in Syria and Iraq, came from Central Asian countries.
Many of those Central Asian nationals, among thousands of foreign fighters from other countries, were arrested by Iraqi forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) when IS's self-proclaimed caliphate began shrinking across Iraq and Syria.
When the Kurdish-led SDF announced its final victory over IS in March, the question of what to do with the foreign fighters became a conundrum. The SDF complained that detaining such a large number was a major burden and asked their respective countries to take them home.
Unlike many Western countries that were reluctant to repatriate their citizens, Central Asian countries intervened early. Officials from each government say their efforts reflect their commitment to their citizens, particularly children who were taken by their parents to the conflict zone.
During a May 13 press briefing on the repatriation of 231 Kazakh citizens from Syria, in a process called the "Zhusan humanitarian operation," Kazakhstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said its move was also to reiterate its full implementation of its international obligation under U.N. Security Council resolutions 2178 and 2396.
Supported mainly by the United States, Resolution 2396 was passed in December 2017 as a direct follow-up to the Council's 2014 Resolution 2178. The measure is used to combat IS foreign fighters through strengthening judicial measures and international cooperation. It asks for "appropriate" prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign fighters and their accompanying family members.
Some analysts charge that the Central Asian countries will likely face challenges for years ahead as they try to reintegrate their nationals. They warn that returnees who were brainwashed by IS could impose a greater threat by spreading the extremist ideology, if their rehabilitation fails in a region that is struggling with serious socioeconomic problems and is still trying to refine its identity after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Mirhat Madiyarov, chairman of the Shanyrak Religious Center in Kazakhstan, told VOA that many people in the region feel an identity loss as they find themselves between their national values and those left behind by the Soviet Union.
"This is a crisis we are facing today in Central Asia, specifically Kazakhstan, where since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a set of ideologies that were prevalent among school principles to teachers, to kindergarten instructors, have disappeared," Madiyarov said, adding that IS used the vacuum to its advantage by targeting people through social media propaganda.
"If we didn't lack ideology in our societies, these dangers wouldn't be able to affect our society to such a degree. For example, Turkey, even though it is situated much closer to Syria and Iraq, the problem there didn't become as serious as compared to our own," he added.
While rehabilitation programs could ultimately help the returnees deradicalize and disavow IS destructive ideology, the governments in Central Asia could also address other concerns, such as providing economic opportunities, some experts charge.
Eric McGlinchey, a professor at George Mason University and an expert on politics and Islam in Central Asia, said many Central Asian nationals, unlike Europeans, joined IS in search of economic opportunities that the group promised to provide once its self-proclaimed caliphate was established in Iraq and Syria. He said investigations reveal some of them went to Syria not knowing they had to fight on the battlefield.
"I think some of the people who have ended up in IS areas were under the idea that they would be serving as cooks or things like that," McGlinchey said. "These people went for economic reasons. So, I think one difference may be that many of the people returning may not be ideological co-travelers with the organization itself."
McGlinchey added that governments in the region may find it easier to reintegrate those who were encouraged by economic opportunities rather than an ideological similarity to IS.