Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer is a research professor in the School of Foreign Service, co-convener of the Indigenous Studies Working Group, and a Berkley Center faculty fellow. She has been at Georgetown since 1987 in the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and the Anthropology Department, and has twice been a Doyle Faculty Fellow through the Berkley Center. She is editor of the Taylor and Francis journal Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia and is author or editor of six books on Russia, Central Asia, and the Circumpolar North. Her research interests focus on the intersections of religion, politics, ecology, human rights, and comparative indigenous activism. Her latest book, based on fieldwork in three republics, is Galvanizing Nostalgia: Indigeneity and Sovereignty in Siberia (Cornell University Press, 2021).
Recently, savvy international news reporters have covered the devastations of refugee families of numerous nationalities fleeing Syria, their ISIS-fighter fathers dead or defeated, their multigenerational loyalties understandably in doubt. Are the Muslim mothers in such families radicalized beyond recovery, victims with reintegration potential, or people too diverse for generalization? How can the depolarization of their children begin when often their home countries refuse to repatriate them? These are next-generation issues that are sparked from core-shaking divisions, ripple effects of the immense global shifts made evident to us by the attacks of 9/11, our horrific wake-up call.
When I learned of planes crashing into New York City skyscrapers, I was in my local post office in Cabin John, Maryland. While I immediately sensed our relatively secure world had changed, I could barely understand the scope and for months read everything I could about the biographies of the mostly middle-class Al-Qaeda perpetrators, who committed the attacks “in the name of Islam.” Such a coupling of a psychology of despair with religious zeal is an old story morphing in our times in new ways with unprecedented scale and reach. The agency and dignity of individuals is hard to maintain when they are buffeted by fiery leaders exploiting economic and political upheavals that are barely constrained by traditional social structures tenuously holding home communities together. Such widespread dilemmas, whether stimulated by war or other forms of societal collapse, emerge as particularly stark when we analyze the politics of migration and refugees. How are we to think about shifting imbalances among individual purpose, global trends, and community disintegration without drowning in data about human strife?
A lead article in the journal I edit, Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia, provides an unusual angle for insight. Its author, Denis Sokolov, an engaging Russian political anthropologist of Daghestan in the North Caucasus next to Chechnya, began building friendships and connections with people living in the mountain village of Karata in 2010. He has been interviewing generations of people in and from Karata ever since, in numerous venues. Denis has recorded the astonishing narratives of three generations of Karata inhabitants as its reputation changed from being one of the most Sovietized villages in the North Caucasus to a source of ISIS recruits.
Muslim youths from Karata, including “the best and the brightest” of young men who dream of a renewed caliphate, have brought whole families to Syria, only to die or to regret their hard-to-revoke decision. Subsequently, a few individuals and families originally from Karata have escaped Syria for Turkey and Ukraine, where Denis has met with them while they suffer in a decidedly unstable and politicized diaspora. They are rarely allowed back into Russia. The context for their trauma and the changing circumstances of their home community, which speaks Andi, are explained in Denis’s blockbuster, nearly cinematic article. Readers travel from the intricate mountain paths and politics of Karata to the chaos of the Daghestani capital Makhachkala’s modernization and to the criminal networks surrounding Moscow’s Kursk and Yaroslavl railroad stations. Along the way, we learn how some in the new generations beyond the village came to “replace their Karata identity with an Islamic one.” Denis puts his extensive field research into further perspective by explaining how the North Caucasus in general—and Daghestan in particular—has become a place of decolonialization within Russia, precisely as Moscow has tried to tighten its punitive, administrative grip on the region. Once begun, the process of polarization is hard to mitigate with even well-considered social reform “from above” and becomes dangerous without deep, locally guided structural changes.
What does this mean for us and our assessments of the increasingly dangerous, polarized, and interconnected world of refugee discontent? Can empathy transcend hard-line politics without backfiring? It is a classic anthropological approach to say that each person must be analyzed in full cultural context, particularly in cases of international student visa reviews or refugee repatriation. “Big picture” generalizations on multiple sociopolitical levels must be combined with the gritty hard work of learning individual life histories. A potential ethical and policy lesson: Officials need to listen to each life narrative of multinational refugees from Syria mired in the mud of restricted zone camps with greater understanding to make informed judgements about how children may be incorporated into ideal societies of multireligious and multiethnic diversity. Doing so could help defuse the next generation of international terrorists before it is too late.