Evidence for Jihad Studies
In January, I had a brief—and very enlighteningᾹexchange with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross about “jihadi ideology” and what it means, and how we analyze it, and so on.
Something leapt out at me, namely how we “measure” the ways in which people can become radicalized. I understand there is some psychological process, and it’s related to social and physical environment, and so on. But when we look back on someone who’s been arrested, or who just committed (or tried to commit) some heinous act like blowing up an air plane, we usually cannot point the exact moment where that person changed from “normal” to “radicalized.” It’s like describing someone as rich, or some visual work as pornography: you can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it, and there are extremes at which you can meaningfully distinguish the two.
The difficulty in pointing to the exact process and stepping stones toward radicalization is, of course, very important for Central Asia. Even ignoring the whole Afghanistan thing (something I wish I could do, given my mental exhaustion on the topic, but which I apparently cannot given my continuing obsession about the war), we’re left with two broad genres of “Jihad in Central Asia”: the Uzbeks Are Scary school, and the Central Asians Will Radicalize & Destroy Us All movement. There is, of course, overlap between the two.
But what strikes me is how, in general, the sourcingᾹthe evidence—for arguing the presence or increase or danger posed by radicalization is incredibly difficult to come by. You can discuss speeches and Mosque sermons, for however influential they may be. You can talk about things on the internet, though we don’t know what role they really play in radicalizing people. We can even, if we’re lucky enough to have keen investigators, discuss communications between the target of radicalization and the radicalizer, though this, too, falls into the trap of maybe meaning nothing.
At the end of the day, people talk, they brag, and they bluster. In my personal life, I know I do—I think most people do, it’s normal. But when it comes to Islam, we seem to have a difficult time distinguishing between bluster and explicit plans for action. Not an impossible time, mind you, but a difficult one.
Which brings me to this post by our friends at neweurasia.net about Islamists in Turkmenistan. Try as I might, their argument amounts to “some guys on the internet talk about stuff.” The evidence for this actually being an Islamist Movement, like Hizb-ut Tahrir actually setting up shop and working a branch in Ashgabat or something, is really thin.
None of that means that there is no Islamist movement in Turkmenistan. But before we fly off talking about conspiracies within conspiracies, I think we owe it to ourselves to be very explicit about what we’re seeing, and not seeing, and fairly analyzing.