Johns Hopkins University Press

The purpose of this article is to explore what explains radicalization of migrant communities and their families in their home country. Contemporary scholarship on radicalization has identified a broad range of explanatory variables, such as poverty, discrimination and/or lack of social mobility, that have the capacity to push individuals toward violence and radical beliefs. Yet, there is still a significant gap in current literature over the question why entire ethnic or national migrant groups are more represented in radical groups than others despite similar experiences. Using the case of Tajik migrants in Russia this article posits that the legacy of collective grievances and cyclical, systemic injustices, rather than a specific or personal experience of discrimination or mistreatment, are more accurate in explaining radicalization. The article pays specific attention to the role of religious or social remittances and, given a shared set of experiences, the susceptibility of the migrant's own family in the home country to the same radical ideology—despite their never leaving their country's borders. The findings suggest that the home country context, the collective account of society, is a more substantial predictor of radicalization than reception alone.


radicalization, migrant communities, social remittances, Tajikistan, Russia

As a matter of both national and international security, governments worldwide are working to prevent radicalization and curb violent extremism. However, despite the investment of billions of dollars and the focus of global experts, violent extremism remains persistent, and individuals from all walks of life continue to join radical groups. This failure to stem radical recruitment can, in many ways, be attributed to the fact that academics, politicians, and conflict management practitioners are still working to understand radicalization. Research has established that radicalization is a process involving multiple stages in the broader ecosystem that influences the individual. So-called push factors, such [End Page 473] as poverty, discrimination, or a lack of social mobility, have been heralded as explanatory variables for why individuals enter this journey to violence and move along the stages toward radical belief. But beyond these observable patterns, current theories fail to show what makes one migrant radicalize while another remains moderate despite experiencing the same push factors. These missing links become even more pronounced when considering why entire ethnic or national migrant groups are more represented in radical groups than others despite similar experiences—why are Tajik migrants traveling to Russia so much more susceptible to radicalization than Indian migrants traveling to Saudi Arabia?

Theories that attempt to identify the individual at stage one in the radicalization process will ultimately fail to predict whether or not the radicalization will progress. There is not enough quantitative or qualitative data available that tracks every step on the road to radical belief; we may never know the intricacies of every individual's path to radicalization with enough specificity to make generalizable claims. More robust radicalization theory would instead view the individual within the broader context of their national history and the legacy of their shared experiences with their peers. The case of Tajikistan shows that a legacy of collective grievances and cyclical, systemic injustices, rather than a specific or personal experience of discrimination or mistreatment, explain statistically significant radicalization. This theory is especially significant for both politicians and practitioners when considering the role of religious or social remittances and, given a shared set of experiences, the susceptibility of the migrant's own family in the home country to the same radical ideology—despite their never leaving their country's borders. This theory posits that the home country context, the collective account of society, is a more substantial predictor of radicalization than reception alone. The case study of Tajik migrants radicalized in Russia, and the rise in radical belief in Tajikistan, shows that a more accurate theory of radicalization should focus on a broader, historical survey of the context of their country of origin rather than a snapshot of the migrant in the host country. This article will begin by outlining existing literature focusing on radicalization theories, discuss social remittances, examine the case of Tajikistan, and conclude with an analysis of policy implications and recommendations.

Before we examine radicalization theory to date, it is essential to note the inherent quantitative limitations in studying radicalization and emphasize the need for additional research to support the primary idea presented in this article. While efforts, including but not limited to the [End Page 474] Global Terrorism Database (GTD), catalog terrorist attacks and incidents, there is a lack of open-source data on radicalization—including individual and group self-reported data and factual recruitment patterns. What we often see tracked are the after-effects of radicalization, such as terrorist attacks or incidents tracked by GTD. Through this type of data, the preponderance of Tajik migrants committing acts of terrorism was first identified; however, this data does not provide the critical context and detail to help explain how and why the incident took place. Without more comprehensive data, we are left to look to more theoretical frameworks and rely more heavily on anecdotal evidence. While anecdotal evidence can provide helpful context, it should not be misconstrued as entirely factual or representative. The need for a more robust evidence base in the world of peacebuilding, including radicalization, is discussed at length in the Alliance for Peacebuilding's recent report, "Some Credible Evidence: Perceptions about the Evidence Base in the Peacebuilding Field" (Alliance for Peacebuilding 2021). The theory presented in this article should be supported or challenged by future data collection rather than taken at face value.

Establishing Existing Theories of Radicalization: A Literature Review

Our understanding of how and why people are radicalized—and what radicalization is itself—has evolved significantly over time. Historically, many theories have focused on individual psychology or a history of criminality as explanatory variables for adopting radical or extreme beliefs and behaviors (Weinberg 1991; see King and Taylor 2011; Silke 2008). Jerrold Post (1998), for example, argued that extremists construct a unique logic to rationalize violent acts that they were already psychologically compelled to commit. However, as radicalization scholar, Randy Borum (2011, 14) writes, "forty years of terrorism research . . . has fully debunked the notion that only crazy people engage in terrorism." This theory has been replaced with a consensus that the dynamic between individual experience and group or national factors creates an environment in which radicalization can occur. However, specifics on that dynamic or a measurable step-by-step process of radicalization that would offer concrete windows for effective intervention remains elusive. This literature review aims to summarize existing theories of radicalization to establish gaps and areas for more significant research. First, working definitions of extremism and radicalization will be found. [End Page 475] Second, general geopolitical or socioeconomic variables leading toward radicalization will be explored. Third, the two predominant groups of theories that attempt to explain the individualized process of radicalization, top-down and bottom-up, will be summarized. Lastly, this article will establish flaws in these theories and possible biases associated with the current state of radicalization research that highlights the need for additional analysis.

Defining Radicalization

Radicalization is a highly politicized term, as will be discussed later in this literature review, and numerous definitions exist. A cursory glance of radicalization literature reveals diverging and, at times, contradicting definitions of radical belief, radical action, extremism, and terrorism (Dalgaard-Nielsen 2010; Mandel 2009; Sedgwick 2010). Therefore, to simplify this analysis, one definition should be established to clarify what behaviors or beliefs will be classified as radical and why. This article utilizes the definition outlined by Randy Borum (2011, 9): "radicalization . . . is the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs." It does include the term "extremist," which is also difficult to define. According to Borum (2011, 10), "extremism can be used to refer to political ideologies that oppose a society's core values and principles." In most literature, the typical individual susceptible to radical ideologies and beliefs is young, male, single, and often a second-generation migrant. Notably, according to this definition, radicalization is not characterized by violence but does not exclude violence. This definition focuses on radicalization as a process rather than an innate characteristic or end-point. Other definitions offer different potential avenues for research based on what they choose to include or exclude; however, this definition will serve as the foundation for this analysis.

Socioeconomic and Geopolitical Push Factors

There are many general socioeconomic and geopolitical factors associated with the process of radicalization in the existing literature. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) offers a comprehensive overview of these factors as a part of their research into countering violent extremism (CVE) and preventing violent extremism (PVE) programming, including a list of so-called "push factors" that drive individuals towards radicalization: "the role and impact of global politics; [End Page 476] economic exclusion and limited opportunities for upward mobility; political exclusion and shrinking civic space; inequality, injustices, corruption, and the violation of human rights; disenchantment with the socio-economic and political system; rejection of growing diversity in society; weak state capacity and failing security; changing global culture and the banalization of violence in media and technology" (UNDP 2016). It is the current consensus for the international community that it is generally not the ideology of the radical groups themselves that widely attract recruits, but rather economic and political opportunities tied to the ability to rectify injustices and inequalities are most potent—the so-called "grievances" category (Proctor 2015; Braizat et al. 2017). USIP (2019, 19) also utilizes similar categories to explain radicalization, writing, "When citizens blame the government for their plight, and when the bonds across diverse population groups have frayed, violent extremist groups can gain a foothold by exploiting political and economic grievances, advancing a radical ideology, provoking violence, establishing a presence, and offering a viable alternative to the state." While other factors are undoubtedly relevant, these broad buckets include most of the research into systemic factors driving radicalization.

Top-down Processes

Moving to the processes by which individuals are radicalized, several theories focus on top-down models. Fathali Moghaddam (2005) writes about radicalization as a staircase with five levels. The first level describes feelings of relative deprivation and unjust treatment. In the fifth level, individuals are trained to ignore inhibitory mechanisms and exact violence. In this process, the inability to achieve greater justice or social mobility and the influence of radical leaders push individuals up the stairs toward violent acts. However, recruiters drive the process at the critical second and fourth levels, where an individual begins to "displace their aggression onto an enemy" (Moghaddam 2005, 36) and where the us-versus-them thinking is formalized. Moghaddam does not offer greater specificity in determining what is either unique about the individual or his environment that makes one person or group of people more likely to become radicalized, however, and is mainly dependent on the influence of one particular leader.

Similarly, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service's (PET) four-stage model highlights the influence of a radicalizer as a critical driver of the process. The introduction of the radicalizer marks the first [End Page 477] stage (Görzig and Al-Hashimi 2014). Anja Dalgaard-Nielson (2010, 802) also emphasizes the role of radical groups when discussing the process of radicalization through framing theory, which states that events "rarely speak for themselves." Social groups are most effective when they can successfully construct frames that motivate individuals to act. Radical groups can drive individuals toward violence by effectively framing events toward that outcome. The individual alone is likely incapable of independently interpreting events in such a way that would drive them to violence; the radical group assumes this role. These models are more informative than those that place too much focus on the individual's drive because they offer one potential "kick-starter" to the process of radicalization; the influence of an outside actor who draws in potential recruits.

Bottom-up Processes

Turning toward bottom-up recruitment processes, Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko (2008) view radicalization as a pyramid, where supporters of radical groups sit at the bottom of the pyramid and the most radical and violent individuals sit at the top. Individuals become radicalized through twelve mechanisms that take place at three different levels: the individual (personal victimization, political grievance, and joining a radical group), the group (group polarization, extreme cohesion under isolation and threat, competition for the same base of support, competition with state power, and within-group competition), and the mass level (turning enemy's cause against him, hate, and martyrdom) (McCauley and Moskalenko 2008). Unlike Moghaddam, Dalgaard-Nielson, and the Danish intelligence service, who focus on the influence of individual recruiters, McCauley and Moskalenko highlight the role of group dynamics and personal perception in radicalization. Ten out of the twelve factors listed above "begin from and depend on a dynamic of opposition in which the significant events are the actions of others" (McCauley and Moskalenko 2008, 430). In this way, individuals react to external stimuli and become radicalized.

Another bottom-up, process-based radicalization model can be found in Randy Borum's four-stage model. In this model, an individual dissatisfied with their situation begins the process by comparing their experience to others and creating a narrative dynamic of inequality. This perspective fuels a growing sense of injustice through the second stage. In the third stage, the individual blames others, and an out-group is identified. In the fourth and final state, negative stereotypes are applied to [End Page 478] all out-group members, and violence against those out-group members becomes legitimized (Borum 2011, 12). Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt also adopted a four-stage model in their analysis for the New York Police Department Intelligence Division. However, their model stresses a more self-driven process of radicalization and depends on the presence of a personal crisis or "cognitive opening" rather than the influence of leaders or in-group dynamics (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 6). According to these authors, radicalization could be viewed as an individually-motivated process based on a catalytic event and perceived societal prejudices.

Issues in Existing Literature

As is already visible, a comprehensive theory of radicalization is challenging to establish. The theories mentioned above, in some ways, describe fundamentally different processes. Radical groups can be active or passive in the recruitment process, and the individual's experience can be more or less relevant than their broad surroundings or context. As Hafez and Mullins (2015, 959) explain, "we are no closer to an agreement on the models that chart out the transformative process by which ordinary individuals become extremists." So, while true that many researchers have succeeded in moving away from a model based on individual psychological culpability, few studies have succeeded in explaining why an individual would move from one stage to another or even step onto the first stage at all. Bhui, Warfa, and Jones (2014, 3) write, "It is still unclear what factors make potential recruits open to persuasion to join a political movement that incites violent protest and terrorism." Bottom-up or top-down models include a first stage marked by the socioeconomic and geopolitical factors mentioned above. But no discernable and universally agreed-upon pattern about why individuals move from this first stage to future steps can be found.

These issues are especially true when considering the radicalization of migrants. The unfortunate reality is that, for most of human history, migrants have experienced discrimination, struggled to find social mobility, and been excluded from their host country contexts—in some cases, these are the same drivers that push migrants out of their home country in search of work. Migrants are often targeted by the public and the government, and many migrants experience at least some of the push factors discussed above—if not all. What makes one group or individual move beyond this common migration experience toward radical belief and action over another who experiences the same context of reception [End Page 479] cannot be answered with existing literature. This is a fundamental flaw of radicalization theory as it currently stands.

Some of these shortfalls can be explained by looking deeper into the context from which they originated. In response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Western governments quickly sought to understand how those perpetrators were radicalized to execute these attacks as a matter of national security. Thus, the search for a framework was not a process wholly motivated by anthropological or political research principles. As Arun Kundnani (2014, 117) writes, the narrative around radicalization constructed after 9/11 "was, from the beginning, circumscribed to the demands of counterterrorism policymakers rather than an attempt to objectively study how terrorism comes into being." In other words, the United States needed explanations that provided it with actionable information to execute an offensive military strategy to prevent future attacks. Julian Richards (2017, 73) similarly writes, ". . . it may be that there were risks in generating an almost irresistible allure for easily-understood and conveyed process models of radicalization." This bias is also visible when examining the case studies utilized by the authors; almost all focus on the susceptibility of Middle Eastern or North African migrants, typically second-generation, living in Europe. These groups, incidentally, represent a more present and significant threat to the West than, say, radicalized migrants living in Russia and traveling to Iraq or Syria. The inclusion of other cases would help strengthen and refine radicalization theory.

In summary, existing radicalization theory fails to explain why individuals are radicalized with helpful specificity. Over the last few decades, the field has improved but has perhaps suffered from tunnel vision that seeks out clear categories, easily-identifiable characteristics, and incremental processes. General factors, such as economic or social grievances and systemic injustices, are observable in almost all cases in hindsight but ultimately fail to predict when an individual will become radicalized because they are too common to the experience of migrants and migrants coming from developing countries. To understand the process by which an individual or group is radicalized, then, additional analysis is required. Before examining the case study of Tajikistan and exploring in greater detail the importance of a broader historical view when considering why some groups are more susceptible to radical ideology than others, another missing element of radicalization theory will be discussed—the role of religious or social remittances in the overall pattern of radicalization. [End Page 480]

Social Remittances and Radicalization

The theory of social remittances is an emerging area of research that could contribute to a more robust view of radicalization. With migration reaching record levels globally, home or sending countries are now receiving more attention as international development researchers and practitioners attempt to understand how migration helps or hurts local and national development. Remittance flows are an essential focus for this new area of research: funds sent from migrant workers from their country of employment back to their families in their home country, though most studies have focused on the economic and financial impact of remittances. However, additional research has also examined the effects of financial remittances on the receiving country's social and political norms and structures. Peggy Levitt (1998, 927) defines social remittances as "the ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capital that flow from receiving- to sending-country communities." Though Levitt identifies three main types of social remittances, the most relevant types for this article are normative structures, defined as "ideas, values, and beliefs . . . [that] include norms for interpersonal behavior, notions of intrafamily responsibility, standards of age and gender appropriateness, principles of neighborliness and community participation, and expectations about . . . how the church . . . should function," as well as systems of practice, including religious practices (1998, 933). Several factors need to exist for social remittances to exist: normative structures and systems of practice must be different in the home and host countries, migrants need to be exposed to these new norms and systems, and finally, there needs to be sufficient opportunity for information exchange between the migrant and their host family. Levitt particularly highlights those financial remittances heighten the impact of social remittances; Ivlevs and King (2017) describe this connection as either a conditionality effect, where the social remittances further influence the behavior of family at home because of their financial dependence on the monetary remittances or a communication effect, where monetary remittances simply signal closer links between migrants and their families. Levitt's social remittance theory further argues that the experiences of migrants before they travel influence what they eventually absorb in the host country and remit back home (Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2011). The concept of social remittances is directly relevant to the radicalization theory. It provides evidence that it is possible to remit more socially and politically radical norms and beliefs through migration back to the home country. [End Page 481]

There have been several case studies focused on the impact of social remittances. However, most focus on the remittance of Western or developed state norms to non-Western or developing states and view social remittances as a positive force (Escribà-Folch, Wright, and Meseguer 2022; Crow and Pérez-Armendariz 2018; Beine and Sekkat 2013; Itzigsohn and Villacré 2008). As stated by Artjoms Ivlevs (2021, 780) in his literature review of the subject, "there is now considerable evidence that emigration affects the quality of institutions and political developments in the countries of origin; the effect is more likely to be positive if migrants go to countries with better governance." Though few studies have examined cases in which remittances were not a positive force, the theoretical framework of social remittances allows "that both good and bad practices can be transmitted—depending on what kind of institutions migrants are exposed to and absorb at destination" (Ivlevs 2021, 778). Karakoç, Köse, and Özcan (2017) provides an example, as their research traced the impact of migration to a nondemocratic country on the sending country by analyzing Egyptian emigration to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its influence on the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections. They ultimately found that "socialization in a nondemocratic context may also instill non-democratic norms and values and lead to increased support for parties that are not committed to democratic values" (Karakoç, Köse, and Özcan 2017, 732). Factors present at home that migrants' families continue to experience, including but not limited to economic and political exclusion, limited upward opportunities for mobility, inequality, and corruption, could help explain why Egyptian migrants living in Saudi Arabia adopted more radical beliefs and voting patterns—and then transmit those back to their families at home.

Case Study: Tajikistan

Tajik migrants travel to Russia in astounding numbers every year. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Tajik men, work seasonally in Russia to support families back home. Tajikistan's economy is dependent on the value of migrant remittances, trapping the workforce in this cycle of employment. The government has also increasingly targeted religion, with hundreds of laws explicitly passed targeting Muslims since 2015. Thousands of Tajik men have been successfully recruited to join radical organizations, including Islamic State (IS), while working in Russia, where they experience discrimination and extreme poverty. This brief description of Tajikistan's current economic, social, and political context [End Page 482] fits existing literature; the push factors and individual motivations are present. It would be simple enough to say that Tajiks are likely to be recruited for these factors. Most previous research stops at this point. However, a broader historical overview of Tajikistan proves to be more compelling and a more robust explanation of why Tajiks are increasingly adopting radical beliefs. Tajikistan's "ongoing process of national self-identification through creating a national past of the Tajiks" (Jonson 2006, 36) is critical to understanding why the current context alone is not sufficient. This section will outline previous and current dynamics that radicalize both Tajiks at home and Tajiks in Russia by focusing on two critical periods: the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent civil war and the modern period.

The Collapse of the Soviet State and the Civil War

Tajikistan is the only nation of Iranian descent in Central Asia, and multiple varied ethnic groups separated by geography and culture have existed within its borders for centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Russian invasion sought to homogenize these groups, particularly Persian and Muslim culture, in favor of a cohesive identity more in line with Russian identity (Jonson 2006). As historian Lena Jonson (2006, 35) writes, "it was Soviet rule that gave the Tajiks statehood and their own geographical and political territory and reinstated the Tajik language." Positively, the massive Soviet redistributive structure produced economic development in Tajikistan—life expectancy averaged 70 years, literacy was almost universal, and most women enjoyed nearly equal civic rights to men. However, this attempt at nation-building was not effective in eliminating pre-existing divides. The push for collectivization and industrialization in the twentieth century resulted in mass forced migration within the country; these forced transfers increased in-group/out-group exposure and, in effect, "transformed the previously loose regional affiliations into a more fixed group identity based on regional origin" (Vuković 2016, 68). The northern and southeastern regions were most closely aligned with the Soviets. In contrast, the southwestern region bordering Afghanistan was particularly neglected, politically and economically—later, this region would become central to the Islamic movement that initiated the civil war (Akiner 2001, 25).

The fate of Islam in Tajikistan during this period is a complicated story. Soviet rule was, on the one hand, damaging to the traditional Muslim religious establishment as the Soviet Union strategically cut off [End Page 483] Tajik Muslims leaders and infrastructure (Bennigsen 1989). However, Islamic practice continued at the local level, likely due Russia's inability to execute a hands-on policy because of Tajikistan's physical remoteness, a lack of willingness for local leaders to eliminate religious practice so central to Tajik history, and the influence of several high-profile Tajik Muslim scholars who continued to carry out religious instruction.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan lost what little economic and social development had occurred. As one scholar wrote, the first ten years following the end of the Soviet Union took place "in such misery and terror as no other state on former Soviet territory" (Jonson 2006, 40). A catastrophic civil war followed the first-ever presidential election in Tajikistan, where a former communist leader saw victory. The opposition Islamic Revival Party (IRP) refused to accept the result, and after a series of public protests, the IRP was banned from participation in future elections. This political conflict snowballed and ultimately led to the creation of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), led by the IRP, and a brutal four-year civil war. Ultimately, between 40,000 and 80,000 people were killed, and more than 800,000 were displaced to Russia or Afghanistan in just four years. Based on population size, some scholars regard this conflict as the deadliest civil war of the twentieth century (UN 10 Stories). This war irrevocably changed the fabric of Tajik society.

Many factors led to the war (Nourzhanov and Bleuer 2013; Epkenhans 2016), including regional divisions and tensions, geopolitical turbulence around Afghanistan, and the influence of Islam (Jonson 2006) as well as youth unemployment, corruption, ethnic clashes, resurgent Islam, and a political awakening (Akiner 2001). During the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Tajiks began to identify with the religious movement in Afghanistan. Thousands of Tajiks fighting with the UTO admired the power of the Islamic movement in Afghanistan and its ability to self-define what it meant to be Afghan (Jonson 2006). This was a compelling narrative for the Tajiks who had suffered forced migration and religious oppression during the Soviet era. Importantly, though, the central issue for these individuals was not an inherently religious one. Islam was a tool by which regional and national grievances could be channeled. Additionally, the most brutal fighting occurred in areas of heavy forced internal migration during the Soviet era, where "the material success of the newcomers, achieved after much suffering, had long been envied and resented by the local communities" (Akiner 2001, 42). [End Page 484]

Though Russia had remained neutral in the conflict since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they began to push for peace to ensure Tajikistan remained a buffer zone against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The General Peace Agreement, facilitated by the UN in June 1997, established a Commission of National Reconciliation designed to create a new power-sharing government structure that protected the participation of Islamic political parties. Issues related to refugees, military, political, and legal issues were addressed with varying degrees of success. Violence continued through the early 2000s, and the economy did not recover—by 2002, it was only 60 percent of its size in 1988 (Jonson 2006). High levels of mistrust remained between the two primary groups, and poverty, ethnic tension, warlords, and drug trafficking persisted (Akiner 2011).

Modern Tajikistan

Nearly twenty years on, Tajikistan remains firmly planted among the world's 30 poorest countries and the poorest post-Soviet republics, with 64 percent of the population living under the poverty line (Schottenfeld 2017). The official unemployment level has ranged from 1.5 to 3.5 percent, though the actual unofficial unemployment rate is likely closer to 14 percent (ILO 2010). Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Tajik men have been driven abroad as economic migrants (Figure 1)1 due to continued social and economic stratification (Khakimov 2016). Based on an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey in 2010 with returning migrants,2 the typical Tajik migrant workers are male, low-skilled, married, from a rural area, and support a household of 5-7 people. They travel because they cannot find employment (40.3 percent) or a livable salary (31.3 percent) at home. They work abroad for at least 12 months before returning home to Tajikistan (53. 4 percent), with a majority staying in their host country for between 2 and 5 years (50.8 percent). Migrants aged 16-34 are more likely to remain abroad for longer periods, while migrants above 35 are more likely to return within a shorter time window. An overwhelming majority (94.9 percent) of migrants go to Russia searching for employment (ILO 2010). [End Page 485]

Figure 1. Number of Tajik Migrant Workers in Russia Source: Russian Ministry of International Affairs.
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Figure 1.

Number of Tajik Migrant Workers in Russia

Source: Russian Ministry of International Affairs.

Men from Tajikistan send somewhere around US$2 billion in remittances back to their families each year from Russia, representing anywhere between 30–50 percent of the overall Tajikistan gross domestic product (GDP) per year (Figures 2a and b). Global events impacting Russia's economy dramatically impact their market for foreign workers and impact Tajikistan's remittance values—including sanctions levied against Russia by the United States in 2013 and 2021–2022. Russian visa requirements and work approvals have become increasingly more expensive, complicated, and challenging to acquire, pushing many Tajiks to pursue work in the so-called gray market and deflate recorded "regular" migration numbers. While Russia closed its borders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the migration of Tajiks to Russia surged in 2021 to a historic high after continued corruption in Tajikistan further exacerbated its economic crisis (Ibragimova 2021). While in Russia, Tajiks experience significant mistreatment and discrimination—Tajiks have been targeted by police, subjected to poor working conditions, and abused by Russian citizens. Joseph Schottenfeld's 2017 article for Foreign Policy, "Riding the Rails to Russia with the Migrant Workers of Central Asia," includes harrowing stories of migrant mistreatment. [End Page 486]

Figure 2a. Total Tajik Remittances sent from Russia, USD
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Figure 2a.

Total Tajik Remittances sent from Russia, USD

Figure 2b. Tajik Remittances as Percentage (%) of GDP
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Figure 2b.

Tajik Remittances as Percentage (%) of GDP

[End Page 487]

In conjunction with the rise of remittances and migrant workers traveling to Russia, there has been an observable recruitment trend of Tajik men to radical Islamic groups. In 2016, the UNDP identified Central Asian men traveling to Russia for employment as a particularly vulnerable population to extremist recruitment, reportedly because they are cut off from traditional social groups and experiencing a "crisis of identity" (UNDP 2016, 5). Data from the last few years tracking terrorist activity has shown that Tajik men consistently carry out the highest number of suicide bomb attacks in Iraq and Syria, striking disproportionality considering the total number of Tajik nationals involved in extremist groups pales in comparison to citizens of other countries—1,100 Tajiks in contrast to 6,500 Tunisians and 2,500 Saudis (Winter 2017). It is difficult to estimate the number of Tajiks recruited but have not executed a measurable attack; the numbers could be much higher. Notably, a former Tajik police commander trained in the United States, Gulmurod Khalimov, abandoned his post to become the second senior commander of the Islamic State (Kramer 2016).

The introduction of enhanced religious freedoms and greater participation in the Tajik government was touted as positive developments following the civil war. State-funded religious education was initially optional and became mandatory in 2005. The constitution is only one of two in the region that formally recognizes the role of Sunni Islam in the "development of the national culture and moral life of the people of Tajikistan" (Charles 2013, 42). Following the civil war, Tajikistan was also the only country in Central Asia to allow for a religiously-based opposition political party.

However, in 2009, new laws that disproportionately impacted and targeted Muslims were introduced (Miles 2017; Nozimova and Epkenhans 2019). The government claims that these laws are meant to combat radicalization and violent extremism (Human Rights Watch 2016). Among other rules, all imams would now be appointed by the government-controlled Council of the Ulema and the State Committee for Religious Affairs. The imams are paid out of government funds for a yearly salary below the national per capita average, which is already exceptionally low. The government has also banned all imams that received any theological education abroad from official mosques, in effect "dramatically limiting the number of people in the country who can serve—there is only one Muslim academy in all of Tajikistan, and it is small" (Goble 2018).

Furthermore, "the country's security services have set up video surveillance within and around all mosques in the capitals and major cities" [End Page 488] (Goble 2018). Another 2017 law banned Muslim dress in public buildings and shut down any non-state-sanctioned mosques. Youths under 18 years of age are excluded from membership in any mosque, at least 160 stores selling Islamic clothing have been closed, and in 2015 the government forcibly shaved at least 13,000 Tajik citizens with beards (Global Risk Insights 2017). Over 400 Tajiks living in Tajikistan were reportedly arrested in 2016 for connections to terrorist organizations. Especially concerning, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was banned in 2015 in violation of the constitution (Bezhan 2017). In July 2018, four foreign cyclists were killed an hour outside Dushanbe. The government accused the Islamic Renaissance Party of the attack, though the group quickly denied the accusation. The attack was also claimed by IS. Many reporters attributed the attack as a response from local Tajiks as a statement against restrictive government policies about religion (Radio Free Europe 2018).

Bridging the Gap: The Broader Context for Radicalization

Patterns of fragility and suffering, along with cyclical patterns of state control at the cost of individual mobility, are evident when considering the broader narrative of Tajik history. In a long view, both the civil war and radicalization should not be taken as surprise occurrences. As Akiner (2001, 86) wrote in 2001: "the civil war was not a chance aberration; rather, it was a disaster waiting to happen." For Tajikistan, the cyclical pattern of grievances, poor conflict management, and systemic injustices across generations provided fertile ground for radicalization of many types. This case study shows that the experience of Tajik migrants in Russia is perhaps less deterministic of radicalization than that of the migrant in their home country. Though Tajiks experience discrimination in Russia, they bring a collective memory of "push factors" not limited to their time as migrant laborers but rather connected to a broader inter-generational legacy. A sense of in-group identity that drives radicalization was not created in Russia; it was fostered over generations in Tajikistan through Soviet domination and collapse, civil war and superficial reconciliation, and enduring poverty and political elitism. Religious discrimination, the appropriation of Islam to achieve greater political participation, and the influence of regional movements have created a systemic sense of inequality, injustice, and rejection since the early 1900s. Radical Islamic groups within and outside of Tajikistan [End Page 489] provide a framework through Islam that explains their suffering and offers mechanisms to rectify these injustices. Additionally, the pattern of forced internal migration during the Soviet era and now virtually forced migration to Russia due to a lack of economic opportunity have further solidified in-group/out-group identities.

The fact that this radicalization process also takes place in an environment not dominated by Islam further supports the concept that the context of reception is insufficient to explain radicalization patterns. Islam is classified as the second largest religion in Russia after Orthodox Christianity and is projected to grow over the next forty years. It is and will remain a very distant second (Figure 3). One could potentially argue that Tajik migrants self-select to live and work in predominantly Muslim-majority areas. While there is a two-way flow of Islamic practice and norms between Central Asian migrants living in the predominantly Muslim region of Tatarstan (Yusupova and Ponarian 2018), the great majority of Tajik migrants do not live or work in these regions where a Muslim majority exists. Of the 94.9 percent of returnee migrants who traveled to Russia and were surveyed by International Organization for Migration (IOM), 46.3 percent traveled to Moscow alone. Only 3.5 percent of those surveyed identified people of the same religion as a source of help in Russia (ILO 2010).

Figure 3. Religious Affiliation in Russia
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Figure 3.

Religious Affiliation in Russia

[End Page 490]

The fact that the Tajik economy is so dependent on remittances further exacerbates this pattern of cyclical grievances. The secret and unspoken truth of financial remittances is, after all, that they do not necessarily lead to substantial development for the sending country or even for individual families (Olesen 2002; Kapur 2004; De Haas 2005). A 2012 study by Cynthia Buckley and Erin Trouth Hofmann (2012, 1122) showed that "households receiving remittances are not more economically stable, wealthier, or entrepreneurial than non-remittance households." Thus, in a way, the Tajik migrant traveling to Russia for employment and a better opportunity that sends remittances back home is, more likely than not, destined to ultimately fail to deliver a better life for himself or his family—all while living in a challenging environment, cut off from his home network and community. His poverty at home in Tajikistan will be mirrored in Russia and compounded by an atmosphere of alienation, exclusion, inequality, and rejection: the prime context for violent extremism as identified by the UNDP (2016).

The historical political, economic, and social contexts of Tajikistan serve as far more effective indicators than the snapshot of the migrant experience in Russia. The Tajik case study demonstrates the power of shared experience and collective trauma in priming individuals for recruitment. It is important to note that all Tajik migrants living in Russia are not radicalized; ultimately, a small but statistically significant portion of the overall population falls victim to this ideology. The individual radicalization process is still largely unknown; this case cannot help clarify what brings someone to execute a violent attack. However, it does illuminate what makes one group of migrants more likely than another to become radicalized. The perception of Tajiks that their suffering is not due to individual failures but is systemically inherited and, to some extent, inescapable, is a powerful driver of radicalization. Considering the theoretical framework of social remittances discussed earlier, we see many present factors that would indicate the transmission of more radical norms and structures from migrants to their families at home—economic exclusion, limited upward opportunities for mobility, political exclusion, inequality, corruption, significant social crises/ traumas, and other variables. Should Tajikistan continue to constitute an environment that breeds resentment, we can expect that greater numbers of Tajiks living at home will engage in radical behavior—if they remain disengaged, this could result in increased violence similar to that of the July 2018 attack.

Additional research is required, though, to explore this theoretical framework further. Opportunities for comparative analysis exist when [End Page 491] considering other Central Asian countries with high degrees of migration to Russia but lower recruitment rates to radical organizations in terms of population size, such as Uzbekistan. In this case, the presence of natural resources and other industries reduces overall dependence on remittances to the degree that may prove relevant. Even without rigorous quantitative or qualitative testing, however, reframing or expanding the boundaries of radicalization theory to include more significant consideration of the home country context and the role of social remittances can have a beneficial impact on the implementation of development programming today to mitigate the risk of violence. The next section of this article discusses one potential application of an expanded radicalization theory and social remittance framework to ongoing development and security-focused programming: CVE and PVE.

Policy Implications: CVE and PVE Programming

The influence and impact of social remittances of a radical nature on the nonmigrant Tajik population has significant implications for ongoing work in the countering violent extremism and preventing violent extremism spaces. P/CVE is an innovative field of security policy because it departs from the normal coercive, reactive counter-terrorism strategies that have remained popular in the wake of 9/11 and are more conflict-sensitive (UN General Assembly 2015).

Mechanically, CVE work focuses on "identifying and targeting individuals and groups prone to violent extremism and terrorism, curbing the financing that sustains their efforts, preventing their travel across borders, data gathering, and sharing analysis for intelligence," while PVE work includes "understanding and tackling the motivations that drive people and groups to radicalization; monitoring the Internet and social media for materials that spread radical narratives and incite violent actions; awareness-raising and the promotion of a culture of peace, dialogue, and tolerance via the mass media and education system" (UNDP 2016, 5). Often, terms such as community resilience are utilized to explain local-level development and outreach work; if a community is better able to respond to natural or artificial disasters, they would be less susceptible to radicalization efforts. Cultural and religious leaders, educational institutions, youth groups, and families are targeted as key community actors—increasingly so, women are the targets of CVE and PVE efforts.

As Brenda Oppermann (2014) writes, "As those primarily responsible for ensuring the survival of their families during conflict, women are [End Page 492] highly attuned to the dynamics surrounding it. They are adept at developing strategies to survive since they have a solid understanding of the local context including important social relationships, cultural norms, and patterns of behavior." Their traditional and central role in the home enables women to develop and deliver "credible counter-narratives that debunk the twisted recruitment messages of false hope and hate used by violent extremists' causes to justify violence" (USIP 2015, 9). The United States Institute of Peace cites many anecdotal examples of women advocating against extremist recruitment. In Pakistan, the PAIMAN Alumni Trust engages directly with Talib youth and their mothers, addresses psychosocial and economic needs, and conveys moderate interpretations of Islam. Focusing on prevention through education, Malaysian activists disentangle religion from culturally specific practices that condone violence or the subservience of women (USIP 2015).

Tajikistan's case study potentially complicates this model. In addition to the formidable countrywide issues, women in Tajikistan have faced significant, additional challenges. During the Soviet era, "women were integrated into the workforce and declared equal citizens, but at the same time motherhood was lionized and the Soviet Union exploited patriarchal family structures" (Putz 2018). Following independence and the civil war, thousands of families lost breadwinners and patriarchs; by the end of the war, there were at least 25,000 widows and 55,000 orphans. Currently, women's wages in Tajikistan are about 65 percent lower than men's (Mukhamedovaa and Wegerich 2018). Most agricultural jobs are held by women (75 percent), but few are formally paid and struggle to achieve economic success (Mukhamedovaa and Wegerich 2018). Rural, farming, female-led families finance upward of 80 percent of yearly consumption through remittances from Russia, showing that the clear connection between poverty and the need for work migration begins in the home (Asia-Plus Media Group 2017). These women, wholly dependent on remittances, are most likely to be exposed to radical religious remittances as their male family members travel back and forth to Russia. In a recent World Bank assessment of the radicalization network in Tajikistan, women were identified as the third most vulnerable group to extremism after youth and migrants (World Bank 2020).

While the inclusion of women in the conversation about radicalization is a welcome development, a more historically-rooted theory of radicalization, as presented in this article, shows that Tajik women experience the same vulnerability factors as male migrants living in Russia. In the same way that Tajik men carry a legacy of trauma and a sense of injustice from the civil war, Tajik women have also been deeply impacted. [End Page 493] It would be naive to target women as uniquely capable of preventing radicalization simply because they remain at home or are not exposed to discrimination in Russia. As was demonstrated above, the cyclical nature of vulnerability factors in Tajikistan, exacerbated today by the futility of remittance-driven migration—for men and women—serves as critical indicators of radicalization. A broader historical lens shows that more effective CVE and PVE programming would not simply promote a generalized concept of peace; the systemic inequalities and legacies of injustice should be the primary objectives of such work. Only by addressing these factors, perhaps for the first time in half a century, can the threat of radicalization be dimmed.


The individual psychological process of radicalization remains a mystery—and will likely remain a mystery until these individuals can be interviewed in significant quantities and with improved research. However, this analysis offers a valuable look at what factors make an individual or group more susceptible to radicalization than another. Rather than looking at the migrant at the moment of radicalization, namely their experience or context of reception, it is just as relevant to look at the migrant's home country context and history. When patterns of discrimination, injustice, social immobility, and dissatisfaction are repeated across generations, we can expect a higher degree of radicalization. The nature of Soviet rule, characteristics of the civil war, and continued religious oppression, political exclusion, and poverty have created a strong sense of systemic inequality in the Tajik population—further exacerbated by the growth limitations of a remittance-dependent economy.

Additionally, the broader frame of radicalization that looks beyond the experience of migrants in the host country shows that families at home also carry the legacies that make migrants susceptible. Social remittances serve as a clear conduit to reach domestic populations through these radical ideas. The case study of Egyptian migrants living in Saudi Arabia remitting more conservative social and political values to their nonmigrant families. The measurable impact of this shift on election results demonstrates the real power of social remittances to alter the social fabric of a home country. Though an equivalent study does not yet exist in Tajikistan, the principle is directly relevant. Lastly, an expanded radicalization theory complemented by the social remittance framework offers new insights that can improve PVE and CVE efforts. Rather than [End Page 494] targeting women or families at home as "gatekeepers," a comprehensive picture of radicalization could improve program design and implementation.

There are many areas for future research based on this analysis. First and foremost, more interview data is needed to provide qualitative support for theoretical hypotheses. Additionally, a broader historical lens should be used to examine other notable cases of radicalization worldwide; it would be valuable to apply a more general framework to cases that have traditionally been studied, such as second-generation migrants living in Western Europe, to see if a similar pattern emerges.

This article does not attempt to set forth a claim that all Tajiks are, at any moment, on the cusp of radicalization. However, it attempts to look back to history to better understand the observable pattern of high numbers of Tajiks joining radical groups after working as migrants in Russia and the rise of conservative belief and practice in Tajikistan itself. As was demonstrated in the literature review, previous attempts to generate easily digestible answers for radicalization patterns are insufficient. In reality, a more nuanced theory, based on a deeper understanding of the migrants themselves and where they come from, offers more useful information that can be operationalized for greater impact. No country is destined for any particular path. However, a problem can only be adequately addressed when fully understood. The international community, and the government of Tajikistan itself, would be wise to heed historical warnings and understand radicalization as a process rooted in cyclical, systemic injustices across generations before a conflict once again rises in Central Asia. [End Page 495]

Siniša Vuković

Siniša Vuković is Senior Lecturer of Conflict Management and Global Policy and Director of the Master of Arts in Global Policy Program (MAGP) at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. His research focuses on various forms of international conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation. He has published in a range of scholarly journals such as Journal of Peace Research, Cooperation and Conflict, Global Policy, Washington Quarterly, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Swiss Political Science Review, Millennium Journal of International Studies, International Journal of Conflict Management, International Negotiation, Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, and Ethnopolitics. He is author of International Multiparty Mediation and Conflict Management (Routledge, 2017). He is currently working on two book projects: Rethinking Conflict Management and Resolution (with I. William Zartman), and The International Negotiation Process (with P Terrence Hopmann). He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Research Handbook on the Politics of International Agreements. He can be reached at

India Boland

India Boland is Program Manager for Peace, Stability, and Transition Practice at Chemonics International. She can be reached at


1. This represents the official number of Tajik citizens entering Russia and registering their reason for entry as "work." Prior to 2015, Tajik migrants were allowed to enter Russia without an official visa or permit. The actual number of Tajiks working in Russia may be much higher, with as many as 40 percent of migrants working illegally (Lemon 2019).

2. The fact that this data was acquired in interviews with returnees is especially relevant when considering the role of remittances, be it financial or social, given that migrants that return after any period of time inherently have a stronger connection with their home country and nonmigrant family.


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