During a two-year period beginning in 2016 and stretching across a landscape of 16 remote towns and cities in Central Asia, RFE/RL produced Not In Our Name, a research and documentary project developed to help communities in the region understand and prevent the spread of violence and extremism. Project activities included conversations with individuals and families, video-taped interviews, and moderated group discussions. Asel Murzakulova is a sociologist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, whose deep involvement in issues relating to society, identity, and culture in Central Asia led to her involvement with the project. She spoke to RFE/RL’s Pressroom about its findings, and its potential for empowering communities to confront the extremist threat.
What makes Not In Our Name a unique initiative in Central Asia?
This is the first regional project aimed at countering extremism through raising the voice of young people, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who have lost their close friends or relatives in a “foreign war.” We discussed very difficult issues with the participants. During the first sessions when we discussed the reasons that might lead to recruitment, we heard quite similar arguments from the participants in the studio: money, confession, deception. In the process of immersion in the problem, our participants began to think and ask questions about civic responsibility. The discussion developed from condemnations of misunderstanding to questions about how you can help, what everyone can do at their level.
What were the project’s main findings about the central question: why, despite sharing no cultural ties or language to Syria or Iraq, are the former Soviet countries - and Central Asia in particular - the largest single source of foreign fighters to the Syria/Iraq conflict?
Each situation, each family tragedy that we saw and discussed in the studio showed that there is no single answer to this question. But it can be said that in the societies of the region, there is keen reflection on the topic of social justice, and debate about what it means to be a “good Muslim.”
Are these findings clear to Central Asians?
Now we can see the reaction of social networks to videos that we posted on the Internet, and this makes it possible to see a wider public opinion. The initiative Not In Our Name stirred up a conversation on the Internet that shows that the region has a standard idea about the problem: as a problem of only religious, illiterate and poor people. In this regard, our initiative is dissonant with this prevailing opinion. We show that people who have a stable income, social status in society and education are in the ranks of ISIS or other groups ravaging Syria and Iraq. I think that our message that no one is immune is still marginal in public opinion. And that public opinion has a very narrow view of the problem.
Why did the discussion groups target young people? How did their reactions to the project differ?
Young people from peripheral cities and capitals of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan took part in Not In Our Name. In all countries, the demographic proportion of young people is increasing every year. It is well known that young people are an active group on which the recruitment of terrorist organizations is focused.
The main difference was between the participants who had personal experience -- that is, they have friends, neighbors, relatives who have left -- and those who have not encountered this problem. For example, our participants from Aravan (Kyrgyzstan) and Zhezkazgan (Kazakhstan) shared very insightful reflections: What to do if you are confronted with the dilemma to go to the police and point out your friend and lose a friendship forever? And what if this is your child, brother, sister? What should a Muslim woman do if her husband engages with ideas of extremist organizations?
Were there important differences in the ways that women and men responded to the material and the issues?
The big difference was when we discussed the problem of the return of children taken away by their parents to the war zone, our female participants were more open to socializing the returned children with their own.
How do you characterize the project’s impact, and its contribution to combating extremism and extremist recruitment in the region?
I think our project is an important wake-up call for everyone who watches the videos. Our initiative offers an alternative approach to counter-extremist work – to engage people with the tragedies of affected families. Our emphasis was on giving voice to mothers and fathers who have lost their children and grandchildren in this war. We opened a confidential and honest conversation that this is not someone else's problem, this is our problem.
Can journalism be a powerful tool in empowering communities to stand up against extremist recruiters?
Within the last several weeks, we have broadcast 6 of the project’s 10 video programs on TV in Kyrgyzstan, therefore it is still early to evaluate the whole effect. But today we can see that the videos have become the most viewed on Facebook and real debate is unfolding under them. This is an excellent result. Maybe someone from those who are watching our programs or commenting on them will get a chance to speak out or be heard and maybe someone will change their mind and not go to war zones because he/she can see the other side of this call.
Asel Murzakulova is Deputy Editor and Producer of Not In Our Name. She is currently a senior research associate at the University of Central Asia in Bishkek, and the founder of Mongu, a media project hosted by AKI Press, devoted to the discussion of new research related to critical social issues in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.