Mar 02

Academic freedom in Tajikistan: critical engagement and solidarity

If academic solidarity and forms of critical engagement with Tajikistan are going to emerge, we must first recognise the primary problem comes from the regime. 


In January 2018, we wrote an article for Eurasianet discussing the decline of academic freedom in Tajikistan and how foreign scholars involved in research might respond. We considered several options, including withdrawal, but advocated critical engagement as part of the academic response to the human rights crisis engulfing the country and the increased risks faced by Tajik scholars.

We sought to start a debate in the international research community about what “critical engagement” might mean for academic freedom. The responses to our call from Malika Bahovadinova and Karolina Kluczewska, published by OpenDemocracy in February 2018, make some good points about the ethics of fieldwork; we have elsewhere made similar points. However, both authors, proceeding on a fundamental misreading of our argument, say little about the core issue of academic freedom that we raise.

Tajikistan’s human rights crisis

Academics, journalists and civil society widely acknowledge that Tajikistan is going through a period of authoritarian retrenchment. Human Rights Watch has called this a “a severe, widespread crackdown on free expression and association”.

As we discussed on Eurasianet, academics are part of civil society and have not been insulated from its wider crisis. We know of six cases over the last three-four years of Tajik researchers who have been harassed, constantly questioned, detained for lengthy periods, abused, and ultimately forced to flee. There are probably many more. Few scholars are able to speak out, although one account is published anonymously here.

The purpose of our article was to sound a note of deep concern and ask what is to be done. Naïve or inattentive foreign academics can inadvertently make matters worse for their Tajik partners, as both Bahovadinova and Kluczewska correctly indicate. However, neither of the authors seems to accept the full extent of this crisis. If academics act as if this crackdown is merely a problem of our making that can be avoided, then we risk being by-standers as our colleagues are subject to abuse.

So, what may be done?

Neither boycott nor blacklisting

In the Eurasianet article, we first consider two options before ultimately dismissing them as counter-productive in the current Tajik context.

Boycotts and blacklists are occasionally appropriate. We support our Turkish and Turkish Studies colleagues at Academics for Peace who have taken such measures in response to senior managers who have complied with state demands to discipline and dismiss academics for their political beliefs.

The hard truth is that such complicity in state actions against colleagues is widespread in Tajikistan too — something that neither Bahovadinova nor Kluczewska acknowledges. The six cases we know of show that locally-based colleagues may be required to collaborate with the security services in the repression of their colleagues. We understand what might motivate such behaviours, but foreign academics should not be party to such processes.

However, there are many reasons why a boycott or blacklist would be inappropriate for the smaller and poorer environment of Tajikistan which gets so little attention and so few partnership opportunities anyway. Thus, both Bahovadinova and Kluczewska seem to have misread our piece; like them, we believe that a boycott or a blacklist would not be appropriate at this time, which is why instead we advocate critical engagement.

What does critical engagement mean?

We suggest that critical engagement with Tajikistan may mean that many of the current collaborative projects in the social sciences and humanities should not go ahead. This may include those projects where sensitive topics elicited state repression leading to the flight of the six academics mentioned above. This would also include the many projects that proceed in the extractive manner that we, Karolina Kluczewska and Malika Bahovadinova have described.

But they are not all the projects. Kluczewska and Bahovadinova, for example, have produced some of the most outstanding doctoral and post-doctoral work on Tajikistan in recent years and have worked hard to ensure partnerships which are equitable and relatively safe for their research subjects and co-workers. Such projects are also examples of critical engagement.

However, critical engagement must also extend to engaging with academic societies, advisory councils and research funding bodies to ensure that non-critical partnerships are less likely to take place. We hope this debate will help in raising awareness.

For example, is it really appropriate to partner with Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Research under the President on terrorism research given that the President in question defines “terrorism” so expansively as to encompass anyone in public opposition to his rule? These ought not to be controversial questions to ask, yet we know of several projects of this kind that have proceeded in recent years, apparently without full considerations of the risks involved.

Risks of division, routes to solidarity

Researchers will naturally take different views on how to engage, and such a diversity of perspectives is to be encouraged. Our concern is that in working out what constitutes appropriate and critical engagement we end up blaming one another rather than recognising the source of the crisis.

The primary problem is not clumsy western academics or local scholars who don’t keep to the red lines, but an authoritarian regime which has little or no appreciation of the value of academic freedom. It is clear that the Tajik government has increased its repression of scholars in recent years to the point of making research in many areas difficult or impossible.

We scholars must have broad discussions about the ethics of fieldwork, but as we do so we must not miss the primary problem: a hard authoritarian regime can strike at any time, however careful we may be. We strongly believe that the researcher is not to blame when the regime strikes. The six Tajiks we have mentioned were not to blame for their brave research projects and willingness to speak out. Nor were they simply the “victims” of the foolishness of their foreign colleagues. Foreign scholars who have been arrested, detained and interrogated in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia are hardly to blame for their misfortune? Giulio Regeni, the Italian PhD student brutally murdered in Egypt, is an extreme case of an unfortunate trend that Tajikistan has been a part of.

Researchers and project leaders make mistakes — we certainly have. As researchers, we should seek an environment where we feel able to speak about these publicly rather than professing the infallibility of our partnerships, as Karolina Kluczewska appears to do at one stage. But what we don’t cause are arrests and imprisonment. Both academic solidarity and a sound analysis of these incidents demand that we recognise that the primary problem comes from the regime, and that this is true not despite, but precisely because authoritarian governance is inconsistent and unpredictable.

The debate on these questions is a hard one and must continue. But it must begin from a recognition that we as an academic community are all at risk from authoritarian regimes like Tajikistan which host our research.

We strongly encourage further and diverse interventions on this important topic.

An earlier version of this article was published in Open Democracy on 1st of March 2018.