Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Navigating Between Academia and Activism in Central Asia

Human dignity and scholarly integrity are critical when it comes to researching and intervening in human rights activism.

Colleen Wood
Navigating Between Academia and Activism in Central Asia
Credit: Oziel Gómez / Unsplash

Members of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) descended on Washington D.C. last week for the organization’s 20th annual meeting. Attendees visited several cultural exhibits in addition to panels on literature, history, linguistics, religion, and politics.

Discussions about the proper relationship between activism and academia ran throughout the conference. Mohira Suyarkulova, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, delivered one of the conference’s keynote lectures on the topic. “It is activism and science at the same time, but even more, it is love in the form of scholarship,” she said, echoing a sentiment expressed in her essay published by OpenDemocracy on October 10. 

The tension between activism and academia was not only the subject of formal speeches like Suyarkulova’s; it was also a central topic of debate in various panels. One roundtable, organized by George Mason University professor Marintha Miles, brought academics and practitioners together to discuss the intersection of human rights research and activism. 

Nate Schenkkan, the director for special research at Freedom House, opened the roundtable with a discussion of positionality. In Schenkkan’s view, although careful observation and documentation are necessary for stopping human rights abuses, this form of involvement alone is not sufficient for change. It takes work to get someone out of prison, prevent an extradition, or change a policy. 

Schenkkan did not discount the importance of academic research on human rights, however. He pointed out that people in the human rights world are conscious of the academic community’s work and are grateful for empirical critiques about which efforts are most effective. While it can be enticing for academics to disentangle analysis from activism, in Schenkkan’s view, this is still participation. In this way, the already murky line between academia and activism is further blurred.

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Sean Roberts, a professor at George Washington University, explained how the tensions between activism and academic study largely depend on discipline. In anthropology and development studies, fields Roberts has been trained in and worked in for more than two decades, the idea of advocacy and applied research is commonly accepted. 

Roberts shifted the discussion to the importance of integrity in the face of social and political pressures. He described his role in an interdisciplinary project advocating against the mass detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Two years ago, when several experts began noticing massive crackdowns in western China, Roberts and other academics founded an organization modeled on the “Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars,” which was founded in 1968 as a way to vocalize opposition to American participation in the Vietnam War. 

As of this month, 726 scholars from 42 countries have signed a statement expressing concern on China’s mass detention of Turkic minorities, and in Roberts’s view, the diversity of disciplinary, regional, and ethical perspectives is an advantage. The group’s goal is not to establish a single voice to demand policy change; rather, the goal is to coordinate the release of research findings to reach a wide range of audiences, including academic journals, think tanks, policymakers, and the public.

Steve Swerdlow, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, echoed the importance of effectively communicating research findings and goals for policy change. He showed several examples of promotional materials created by Human Rights Watch that reflect the organization’s many audiences, including American NGOs and policymakers, local activists, and regional government officials. 

Although two-minute YouTube videos might not seem rigorous, Swerdlow underscored that researchers at Human Rights Watch are cognizant of the high stakes; the organization’s reputation and the safety of people they’re writing about are at risk if their videos contain unfair or inaccurate information. 

Aichurek Kurmanbekova, who got her start in human rights working for the Kyrgyz embassy in Turkmenistan and is currently a fellow at George Washington University’s Central Asia Program, spoke of the unique difficulties that local researchers face in doing activist work. Kurmanbekova raised an important point: While it is necessary to raise sensitive issues, it’s important to be aware of how the social and political repercussions don’t affect all researchers equally.

During fieldwork in southern Kyrgyzstan when she and a colleague from the UK were eating lunch, they noticed they were being followed by the police. Kurmanbekova realized that the dangers of this situation were different for her and her partner. “The worst that could happen to him is that he could get kicked out of the country,” she said. “But for me?” 

Edward Lemon, a fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, called this difference in risk an example of “academic capital and privilege.”

Lemon identified proxy repression as an additional risk for local researchers. Oftentimes, autocratic regimes will target the extended families of those who voice criticism while abroad. Miles said she often hesitated to publish research knowing that state authorities are very interested to read the results, both for analysis purposes but also to target those who opened up about human rights abuses to foreign researchers. There’s an inherent tension between the need for researchers to do no harm and the benefits of publishing. 

Miles pushed the panel to discuss how to publish research and create networks that help human rights activists without generating harm for their communities. “But is it effective research if I’m not able to publish anything?” Miles raised the question of transnational activism, often touted as the most effective form of activism, and challenged the idea that being connected to well-known international organizations or Western donors would always help. Sometimes this attention puts a target on local activists that would not have existed without international intervention. 

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There are no easy answers to any of the tensions identified during the roundtable. But it is very promising that these conversations are happening at all, especially between scholars, practitioners, and local activists to account for divergent goals and time horizons.