TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan last year continued a multipronged effort to counter extremism with a renewed focus on the nation's youth and education.
In May 2019, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev approved measures aimed at improving spiritual and educational work, developing intellectual potential and worldview and strengthening the ideological immunity of the population.
As part of that effort, the state has begun to pay increased attention to education, according to Saur Yakupov, a sociologist from Tashkent who heads the Sharh va Tavsiya centre.
Every year, universities in Uzbekistan increase enrolment for applicants and new schools are opening, including foreign ones, he said.
Some 35 new institutions of higher learning opened in Uzbekistan in 2017-2019, including 13 foreign schools. In 2019, more than a million Uzbeks applied to their country's universities and 102,000 gained admission, local media reported.
Active work to prevent extremism is proceeding in such educational institutions.
Uzbekistan's Union of Youth works together with the Ministry of Defence, the Interior Ministry, other government agencies and non-governmental organisations to carry out activities aimed at developing the spirituality of and educating youth.
At the same time, Uzbekistan has been paying special attention to projects focused on youth.
The government in 2017 began airing educational TV programmes focused on the information war against extremism, during times most likely to reach young viewers -- 5pm to 8pm.
That same year, the "Spirituality and Education" channel launched a cycle of weekly broadcasts on Saturdays and Sundays -- "Ziye" (Light) and "Khidoyat sari" (On the Path to Enlightenment).
The programmes show the fallacy of religious intolerance and give fundamental knowledge about "true" Islam.
The government has also prioritised the rehabiliation of those who have fallen victim to extremist deception.
In 2017, Uzbekistan launched a specialised anti-terrorist centre at the Tashkent police department. Its distinctive feature, according to Yakupov, is that it employs not only security personnel but also theologians, academics, family psychologists and sociologists with the necessary expertise.
Meanwhile, a total of 6,300 former extremists received a pardon or amnesty in 2016-2019, according to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan.
In 2017, the Uzbek government also removed 18,000 citizens from its extremist watchlists. This move allows them to be close to their loved ones and also undergo rehabilitation within their own family, Yakupov said.
In 2019, the closure of Jaslyk prison in Karakalpakstan gained recognition as one of the top 10 events in Uzbekistan that year. Observers hailed it as a symbol of the country's effort to fight extremism without violating rights.
This event belongs on that top-10 list because it marked the zenith of the country's 2017-2021 national plan for activity in five priority areas, said Yakupov.
One of those tasks was the creation of a tolerant society that rejects all fanaticism and extremism, said Yakupov.
"To achieve this goal, Uzbekistan broke away from the standard approach in the fight against ... extremism, developed a methodology for studying the problem, and having created a scientific foundation for a policy to manage religion, took a number of important steps," he said.
Targeting labour migrants
While work within Uzbekistan is continuing, another area of concern is Uzbek labour migrants working in other countries, Yakupov noted.
Labour migration has become widespread since 2006. In some parts of Uzbekistan, it reached 40% of the number of men age 21-36, according to Sharh va Tavsiya.
This is the most vulnerable group of young people, who are disconnected from the attention of their local communities for the first time and left alone to face an unfamiliar culture in an alien environment, Yakupov said.
In such situations, young Uzbeks seek to recreate conditions of a community similar to the one at home, where well-known and familiar rules apply, according to Yakupov.
"If at home religion was just a tribute to tradition, then in a foreign land it becomes salvation and a last refuge. Therefore, a visit to a mosque becomes a necessary safety valve and an obligatory weekly ritual," he said.
"That's where the 'preachers' of extremism get them. And their pseudo-Muslim rhetoric, little connected with Islam but using the Muslim vocabulary, finds fertile ground," Yakupov said.
Yakupov recommended that government agencies, together with civic groups, develop a plan to help Uzbeks abroad to work legally as many are illegal migrants.
"It is necessary to bring migrants together in groups tied to their hometowns, to create places for them where they can spend their leisure time and socialise in a familiar environment," he said.
This problem has multiple factors that affect the choice a young man makes when he is in the zone of influence of extremists, Yakupov said.
Therefore, approaches to the solution should be equally multidimensional and complex, he added.