On June 11-12, 2018, an International Conference on “Role of Youth in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism” was organised by the Government of Uzbekistan along with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Tashkent and Samarkand. 164 experts from 22 countries and international organisations such as United Nations (UN), OSCE, European Union (EU), and about 50 members from the Youth Union of Uzbekistan participated in the conference. The Conference was dedicated to understanding youth policies, sharing of experiences, and formulating a common understanding on the issue of preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalisation that leads to terrorism.
The conference deliberated on issues such as the strengthening of legal and political frameworks for preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalisation amongst youth, augmenting international and national efforts, cooperation between government and civil society, modern challenges facing the youth and role of youth organisations, impact of mass media and internet, and the role of religious actors. The key objective of the conference was to look at best practices and develop a holistic approach to preventing and countering the spread of violent extremism and terrorism among the youth.
There was general consensus among the participants that in order to attain the goals of sustainable development and the creation of an inclusive and prosperous world, it is essential for governments, parliaments and international organisations to undertake active youth policies and enhance the role of youth in decision making at local and international levels. Major suggestions that emerged from the two-day deliberation were:
- Countering the spread of the ideology of violent extremism among the youth, leading to radicalisation, must include institutional, legal, political, socioeconomic and information measures embodying genuine democratic reforms for human rights, economic liberalisation and modern education.
- International organisations, governments and politicians must focus on greater engagement with the youth. Focus should be on creating a conducive/positive environment for self-realisation of the youth, their education and enlightenment as well as nurturing tolerant consciousness and behaviour.
- Effective response to the challenge of violent extremism should not be based entirely on enforcement. Implementation of preventive mechanism and prophylaxis are most effective in mitigating this growing challenge.
- No single country can tackle this challenge alone. Radicalisation and terrorism being a transnational/trans-boundary challenge, it demands adequate multilateral efforts and strengthening of international cooperation.
- In this context, it is important to formulate international standards of youth policies, promote multilateral cooperation in social support of young generation, protection of their rights and interests. In this regard, there is a relevant initiative of Uzbekistan to adopt, namely, the International Convention on the Rights of the Youth.
- Youth organisations must play an active role in implementation of the youth policy. In fact, a sustainable mechanism should be created for their involvement in making decisions and their implementation, inter alia, internationally. It is also important to empower the youth, enhancing their legal awareness and social engagement and promoting job creation.
- Cooperation amongst the Central Asian states and their adjacent areas must be enhanced as they are comparatively young. It is expedient to set up Forums of the Youth of Central Asian countries as a platform for interaction and sharing of experience in countering the influence of radical groups, conduct joint cultural and sports activities as well as business forums.
- Terrorism and violent extremism can’t be linked to any specific religion. Promoting tolerance and harmony among the religious groups, and fighting stereotypes, biases and prejudices should be a common cause.
- While it is true that in most of the extremist activities youth have been involved, it is equally significant to acknowledge that youth, an agent of change, can make a positive difference in the long term in addressing the challenges of extremism and terrorism. However, this is possible only if they are constructively engaged and imparted modern education. It is equally important that efforts at local, regional, sub-regional and international levels are well coordinated. More importantly, efforts need to be organic and based on the rule of law.
- Role of internet/digital world in radicalising youth has been a key factor. In fact, the use of mass media by extremist organisations is hitting the youth hard. The best way to address this problem is to have a counter propaganda and greater involvement of youth in this process. Uzbekistan has been actively working towards preventing access to online sources of extremism, blocking websites of extremist organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which has been very successful in attracting youth from all over the world.
The “Uzbek Model”
While the aforesaid suggestions to prevent and counter violent extremism and terrorism do offer some guidelines, the most interesting takeaway from the conference was the experience of Uzbekistan and various measures undertaken by its government. These measures included initiatives to enhance democratic, judicial, legal, and economic reforms; development of civil society institutions; and greater focus on improving the status of education.
Dramatic and important changes are taking place in Uzbekistan under President Shavkat Mirziyovev. He has initiated major economic and political reforms in the country. His regional approach to addressing various challenges facing the Central Asian region has been a welcome step bringing the five Stans closer. Experts like S. Frederick Starr and Savante E. Cornell have argued that Uzbekistan can be viewed as a new model for reform in the Muslim world. According to them, “Uzbekistan is laying the foundation of an important and unprecedented new direction and model for the Muslim World.” Uzbekistan has been fighting extremism for the last two decades, ever since the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) tried to overthrow former President Islam Karimov’s government to establish an Islamic State in the country. Its approach has evolved from tough, hard-headed and uncompromising measures in dealing with the extremists to the present flexible and accommodative approach. Greater focus has since been on the youth and enhancing awareness among them.
President Mirziyovev has taken many positive steps in dealing with the problem of extremism. His government has kept the focus on Uzbekistan’s distinctive tradition of “moderate” Hanafi Islam. He has launched a national idea of “Enlightened Islam.”
Articulating his views on how Uzbekistan has been working towards preventing its youth from getting radicalised, Chairperson of the Samarkand Branch of Youth Union of Uzbekistan, Abdullo Aslanov, noted during the international conference in Samarkand that their main goal is to prevent negative ideas from getting into the minds of the Uzbek youth. More than 62 per cent of the population comprises of young people under the age of 30 years in Uzbekistan, hence the greater stress on various youth programmes. President Mirziyovev has even appointed a State Advisor on Youth in his cabinet. Radical transformation of the education system has been one of the strategic goals of the Uzbek Government.
The Youth Council in Uzbekistan is central to the cause of youth development. More than 10 million youth are part of this Union. Uzbek Government has intensified its effort particularly vis-à-vis the migrant youth by providing them education and options of employment. At the same time, the Uzbek government has also given help to some 9,000 children of extremists who were involved in acts of terrorism. In 2018, the government removed 16,000 of the 17,000 people registered as religious radicals from its list and released many of them. At the same time, several religious exiles were invited back home with the president himself writing letters to them.
An international scientific research centre on “Islamic learning” in Bukhara, aimed at promoting what President Mirziyovev calls “Enlightened Islam,” and an Islamic Civilisation Centre in Tashkent for greater exchange of ideas and interaction with universities and schools, are being established. What is important to note is that the Committee of Religious Affairs had passed a law promoting cooperation among the different Islamic schools of law when Mirziyoyev was Prime Minister. As president, he has encouraged the construction of small roadside mosques as well as Koranic recitation competitions.
Education remains strictly secular in Uzbekistan and school reforms call for increasing students’ understanding of “the role of secular values and religious affairs in a secular society.” All madrassas are state controlled. Greater emphasis is given to promoting tolerance, inter-faith dialogue and co-existence. There are 136 ethnic groups residing in Uzbekistan and the government is trying to harmonise the lives of all these groups. There are some 100 cultural centres and education is imparted in seven languages. There are 739 schools offering education in the Russian language, 505 in Kazakh, 383 in Karakalpak, 267 Tajik, 62 Kyrgyz and 50 in Turkmen language. There are also special lyceums for in-depth study of Korean and Hebrew.
In addition, the Uzbek Government pays special attention to promoting art, culture, and sports in its various programmes for the youth. For example, under its state programme for further improvement of children’s music and art schools for 2016-2020, 278 music and art schools have been built. These are equipped with modern training equipment and musical instruments. Several such programmes have been implemented within the framework of various youth policies in Uzbekistan .
President Mirziyovev’s new model of development through sustained economic, judicial, legal and educational reforms, and prioritising engagement with youth and strengthening of regional cooperation are likely to take the country in a new direction of growth and prosperity. The ‘Uzbek Model’ for managing the threat of extremism and terrorism is drawing the attention of many countries in the region and beyond.
This is particularly noteworthy given that in the past, various international bodies and Western governments were highly critical of the late President Islam Karimov and his tough and uncompromising approach particularly against the extremists and as well as the lack of political and economic reforms in the country. Uzbekistan was often criticised for its poor human rights record and its alleged violation of religious freedom. However, this view of Uzbekistan has started changing with President Mirziyovev’s new model of development through economic, judicial, legal and education reform, its prioritisation of the youth and greater focus on regional cooperation. These reforms were considered necessary to change the image of Uzbekistan, attract investments, improve cooperation among Central Asian countries for addressing regional issues, and bring in new technology and innovation through international cooperation. Its economic reforms have already earned Uzbekistan greater appreciation from international institutions like the World Bank and IMF. Regionally, Central Asian leaders have welcomed the new policy of regional cooperation offered by President Mirziyovev. It is equally important to acknowledge the fact that all these reforms do have roots in the late President Islam Karimov’s period. After all, Mirziyovev served as Prime Minister for 13 years under Karimov. Be that as it may, the fact remains that these new initiatives, which together constitute the ‘Uzbek Model’ are likely to take Uzbekistan in a new direction of growth and prosperity and burnish its image regionally and internationally.
This commentary is based on personal observations of the author as a participant in the International Conference on “Role of Youth in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalisation that Lead to Terrorism” held in Tashkent and Samarkand on June 11-12, 2018.
1. S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, “Uzbekistan: A New Model for Reform in the Muslim World”, The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Programme, May 12, 2018, at https://www.silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/publications/1805FT-UZ-3.pdf
4. Kalandar Abdurakhmanov, Uzbekistan: Past, Present and Future, Sunest, Seoul, 2016, p. 190.