No one knows better than Kathleen Collins that research isn't all about poring over books, Web sites, and microfiche. Sometimes it means traversing dangerous terrain and putting everything on the line.
Photo by Cameron Wittig
Collins, assistant professor of political science, is an expert on Central Asian clan politics. She gained her expertise gathering data from the field—at some personal risk.
In regions where Islamic culture is especially conservative, Collins several times found herself grabbed by disapproving men in public bazaars when she was walking alone—despite adopting conservative dress and often a headscarf. Even in more secular areas, foreigners are a target of ordinary crime, she says. In northern Kyrgyzstan, she was mugged. “They knocked me down to steal my purse, coat, gloves, and passport belt," she says. “I was black and blue for a month."
Such is the lot of the Western female researcher in the Islamic former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, as well as Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus. “It's extraordinarily hard research to do," Collins says. “Mostly, people are very kind to me. But just practical things—traveling alone, taking a bus or a cab, the way you dress—all of those things become real security issues."
Collins persists because the region is so poorly understood. “There has been little empirical research on the question of Islam and Islamic mobilization," she says. “Think tanks and journalists often make unfounded arguments which are taken seriously by policy makers."
While doing research for her recent book, Clan Politics and the Transformation of Regimes in Central Asia, Collins began noticing a post-Soviet, Islamic resurgence in the region. Her current project examines that trend, which she says stems partly from disillusionment about the United States' failure to support nascent pro-democracy movements in the area. Last year, for instance, Azerbaijan held an election that most observers believe was fixed. Yet despite pledges of support by the American ambassador, the U.S. State Department did not publicly criticize the electoral fraud or back opposition protests.
For most of the last decade, Central Asians did not generally consider Islam and democracy antithetical, Collins says. “In the early 1990s, the idea of democratization was much stronger than any sort of religious resurgence," she explains. But as U.S. democratization efforts failed, people's high hopes for democracy and a better life were dashed. “In part, I am finding that the increasing attraction—especially among youth—to Islamist ideas is driven by this disillusionment with democracy and the West," says Collins.
By focusing so intensely on the Middle East, the United States has neglected Muslim Central Asia, Collins believes—and does so at its own peril. “Think about where these trends might take us over the long term. What is this region going to look like?" she says. “Where are these corrupt, authoritarian governments going? What will happen when these weak states fall apart?"
“Hopefully, we won't see a dramatic rise in anti-American Islamism, as in Pakistan, or state collapse, civil war, and the creation of another Afghanistan or Somalia in this region. But that is not out of the range of possibility."