DUSHANBE -- Tajik scholars recently discussed how to combat extremism and the recruiting of Central Asian youth to go fight in Syria.
Dushanbe hosted an international conference on "Youth Radicalisation as a Threat to Central Asian Security" -- August 8.
Hundreds of Tajiks have gone to Syria and Iraq since 2011, according to government estimates.
The German NGO Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Konrad Adenauer Foundation) and the National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan (NAIMMT) organised the conference.
"The primary goal ... was to discuss ways to conduct prevention work with youth and minimise the threat of radicalisation in the younger generation," Nuriddin Karshiboyev, chairman of NAIMMT, told Caravanserai.
The progress of technology
In the past 25 years or so, radical proselytisers have reaped the fruits of technological progress, Dushanbe-based security analyst Kosim Bekmukhammad said at the conference.
They formerly relied on books and magazines, as well as word of mouth, he said. Then came the audiocassette era of the 1990s, which gave way to the internet.
"They have a much broader range of opportunities [now]," he said. "Young people know many 'heroic jihadists', thanks to the internet."
The exact number of extremist websites is unknown, but security consultants put it in the thousands.
Shutting down terrorist pages on social media does not always achieve the results that law enforcement seeks, Bekmuhammad said.
"These organisations ... find ways to circumvent website-blocking software," he said. "Besides blocking ISIL ['Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant'] propaganda ... we should be using social media themselves [to fight terrorism]."
Social media sites that terrorists misuse for propaganda include Facebook, Odnoklassniki, Twitter, and VKontakte, he said.
"Unfortunately, Central Asia doesn't have any outstanding individuals who could push back against propagandists and radical Islam," he said. "We need to be more active and fight together."
Bekmukhammad advised clerics to create their own websites and social-media pages to promote constructive Islam.
"Imam-khatibs need to post their sermons on websites," he said. "Young people should have imam-khatibs answer their questions, rather than find answers on terrorist websites."
Lost in the virtual world
Today's youth spend much of their time immersed in virtual reality, Mukhammadi Ibodulloyev, director of the Tajik office of the NGO Civil Initiative on Internet Policy, said at the forum.
"We can't build libraries and tell them to come," he said. "They now have tablets, computers and other things. But I think that we need to install these books on their gadgets."
"We need to fill the online world with substantial content," he said. "Otherwise, we'll lose to radicals."
Nobody knows what youth are talking about on messaging apps and in restricted fora, Dushanbe-based religious scholar Faridun Khodizoda said at the forum.
"We read only the debates ... on open fora," he said. "But it's entirely unknown what they're discussing on ... WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal or Viber and how they encrypt their communications."
Extremists master youth psychology and slang to make their message more tempting, he added.
The Kyrgyz approach
Kyrgyzstan sees advantages to keeping some groups legal, independent Kyrgyz journalist Erlan Satybekov said at the forum.
For example, Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country not to outlaw the Jamaat Tablighi group, he said.
"We're not dancing around [extremism]," he said. "We're attempting to understand the phenomenon ... and how much of a danger it presents ... We're trying to keep an eye on them and prevent them from going underground. If they go underground, they'll begin to radicalise."
Radical organisations seek to destroy the Islamic ummah (community), Dushanbe-based religious scholar Abdullo Mukhakik said at the forum.
"We need the resources to train specialists to promote constructive Islam through social media, the internet, and other available means," Mukhakik said.