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Central Asian Migrants in Russia Find Religion

For most, Islam is a uniting force in an alien society, though some experts warn of Islamic radicalisation risk.
  • Many Central Asians work in the building industry in Russia. (Photo: Zarina Khushvaqt)
    Many Central Asians work in the building industry in Russia. (Photo: Zarina Khushvaqt)

Central Asian labour migrants in Russia find that Islam offers a refuge that helps ease the difficulties of life in a foreign and sometimes hostile society. While some migrants find comfort and support from religion, experts warn that a minority are vulnerable to recruitment by fundamentalist groups.

There are thought to be more than two million Uzbek nationals working in Russia, over a million Tajiks and about a million Kyrgyz, although many are there as illegal immigrants, making it difficult to conduct an accurate count.

Some say it is only natural for migrants, who tend to lead parallel lives within Russian society, to turn to their own Muslim faith.

Alexei Malashenko, who leads the Religion, Society and Security programme at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, told IWPR that it was only to be expected that a community living largely isolated from the host society would seek solace in a shared culture or belief.

Noting that labour migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were growing more religious, as were Kyrgyz to a lesser extent, he said, “It’s happening because of their search for identity, spiritual guidance and so on.”

Ruslan Abdullaev, a Kyrgyzstan national working in Moscow, agrees that moral guidelines are helpful to an immigrant population.

He often goes to a mosque frequented by people from Kyrgyzstan, and argues that increased interest in religion is a good thing as it helps prevent heavy drinking and disorderly behaviour among seasonal workers.

“Young people are actively interested in Islam. That’s good because they don’t drink or get into fights,” Abdullaev said. “In Moscow, this trend is particularly visible among migrants from the south of Kyrgyzstan.”

Shuhrat Ghaniev, head of the Humanitarian and Legal Centre in Bukhara, western Uzbekistan, has been researching labour emigration for almost a decade, and understands why people need to find their own space in an alien environment.

“It’s impossible to expect a labour migrant who has arrived illegally in a host country to integrate rapidly and painlessly into a society with a different culture and religion from his own,” he told IWPR. “His natural response will be to search out his own countrymen or co-religionists in the hope of finding understanding, protection and support.”

RADICALISATION ON THE MARGINS 

Kadir Malikov, head of the Religion, Law and Politics Centre in Bishkek, says that while most labour migrants from Kyrgyzstan are not very religious, “there are certain sections of the community that adhere [more strongly] to Islam”.

“It’s among this section that the process of radicalisation takes place,” he said.

Ghaniev sees an increase in the number of Central Asians switching away from the teachings and practices of the Hanafi school –traditional in their region – to other forms of Sunni Islam.

Ghaniev says that those migrants who are living and working in Russia without proper documentation face particular pressures.

“They fall victim to extortion while trying to 'legalise' their residence, and at moments like these they look for help and end up turning to radicals,” he said. “There have been cases when one of the conditions for helping a migrant was obligatory attendance of sermons by a particular religious leader.”

Tajik Migrants Ill-Prepared for Work in Russia examines the difficulties faced by some.)

Ghaniev told the story of one 19-year-old Uzbek, who told him about the “new brothers” he met at a mosque in St Petersburg after he lost his job. The men invited him to their own prayer house, gave him a place to stay and found work for him.

The young men said he was not asked to do anything by his new friends other than practice his faith.

Ghaniev said this man’s experience was not one of radicalisation, but it nevertheless illustrated the way in which social isolation and hardship could lead people to being recruited by more dangerous groups

RADICAL GROUPS FIND NEW RECRUITING GROUND

With so much of the working-age population of Central Asia now in Russia, and because the authorities back home prosecute members of banned Islamic movements, radical groups have expanded to working among expat communities. Young men, particularly from impoverished rural areas, are particularly susceptible to such messages.

Abdullaev noted that while some fairly mainstream groups like Dawat-e Islami, a missionary movement founded in Pakistan, were active in Russia, others were more radical. They include Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the creation of an Islamic state but insists it backs only non-violent means.

Then there are Salafi groups, following a doctrine more fundamentalist than the Hanafi and other the main Sunni traditions. There have been reports of Salafists from Central Asia fighting alongside Islamist rebels in Syria. (IWPR has reported on this phenomenon: Central Asian Recruits for Syrian Conflict.) 

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, based at King’s College in London, there are 190 fighters from Tajikistan and up to 30 from Kyrgyzstan fighting in Syria.

Finally, there is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed group active in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it is believed to have attempted to recruit among Central Asian migrants in Russia. (See Islamic Extremists Gain Ground in Tajik South.)

Avaz Ilolov, a migrant from Tajikistan, told IWPR that in his own country, a conviction for membership of a banned group could bring a heavy prison sentence. So the recruiters were instead heading for Russia where “they start recruiting new followers among their countrymen as they are not under the same scrutiny as back home, and if they get caught, the prison sentences are not as heavy as in Tajikistan.”

Malikov said Hizb ut-Tahrir was among the most active recruiting groups, using its own members who had themselves gone abroad in search of work.

“They proselytise in [rented] flats in big cities in Russia where Kyrgyz live together,” Malikov said, explaining that their message was the same as back home. “They are not calling to overthrow the secular government. Even in Kyrgyzstan, Hizb ut-Tahrir does not pursue such an aim.”

Malashenko said that Hizb ut-Tahrir cells were active in Russian cities where Central Asia migrants had settled.

“This is not terrorism. But these guys are very persistent,” he said.

One tactic they used was to become preachers in areas on the Volga where Russia’s large Muslim minorities – Tatars and Bashkirs – lived

“These [mosque leaders] are mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks. There are also Kyrgyz among them as well but they are not as prominent,” he added.

Abdullaev described how such groups attracted new members. “They don’t do it overtly but work one-to-one, probably hoping that if they get one person he’ll later help spread the word among his friends.”

Although the recruitment often focuses on young men from poorer rural backgrounds, Ghaniev says urbanites also turn to extremist groups.

“These young people are often well-educated and able to speak Russian and English, and come from well-to-do families,” he said, adding that he had met university graduates who went on to join a group advocating the creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.

BACK TO CENTRAL ASIA

Although Malikov said that radicalisation was a risk, he stressed that it should not be exaggerated. The real danger, he added, was not to Russia but to the Central Asian countries to which these migrants would eventually return.

“All their activities are geared towards changing the situation here [in Kyrgyzstan],” he said, warning that the new Islamists should be watched closely after they came back home. “On returning to Kyrgyzstan, they obviously will try to find like-minded people and to stay in contact with them.”

In Uzbekistan, Ghaniev said, some of the returning would simple reintegrate back into established Muslim communities without a fuss. Others, however, would keep a low profile and isolate themselves within closed groups, indoctrinating their wives and other family members. Any who came to the attention of the security services were likely to be questioned and kept under surveillance.

Siyovush Qosimzoda and Timur Toktonaliev are IWPR contributors in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively; Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR Uzbekistan editor in Bishkek; Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor.
 

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