The American Declaration of Independence is not merely an affirmation of United States sovereignty, but also an affirmation of ideals: ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ In much of the Western world, these ideals are not viewed as exceptional, but basic civil liberties. They are instantiated in various international agreements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and add legitimacy to the very idea of individual rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’ But all too often, the opportunities these values afford are not evenly enjoyed.
On 16 June, Alexander Sodiqov, a political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, was arrested in Tajikistan while conducting research on conflict resolution. Sodiqov — a 31-year-old husband, father, and Tajik national — was part of a large multi-country research project on conflict management, and had conducted only one interview with a civil society leader before he was arrested. It is not known what prompted his arrest, but it appears to be due to his research activities and possibly to research analyses that he published previously.
Like Sodiqov, as an academic researcher working in Central Asia, the purpose of my work has also been misconstrued by local authorities. While researching religion in 2005, for example, I had two assistants temporarily detained in Kyrgyzstan, and was myself detained in Uzbekistan. In both instances, detainment was a misunderstanding that, once clarified, led to immediate release, apologies, and invitations to share tea and a meal together. Sodiqov has yet to be released, and this is no doubt because he is a Tajik national, and does not have the same protections afforded a US national.
The arrest of a fellow academic researcher, however, is of great concern to all who conduct interview-based research. The magnitude of this concern is evident by some of the largest international professional academic organisations—representing nearly 72,000 constituent members--coming together to voice concern about Sodiqov’s ongoing detention. What happened to Sodiqov could happen to anyone who does research that ends up being perceived as threatening to the authorities, whoever those authorities may be.
The arrest of a fellow academic researcher, however, is of great concern to all who conduct interview-based research.
In terms of promoting open societies that lead to stability and opportunities for human potential to be realised, it is right to want local scholars like Sodiqov to be able to research and ask questions that could benefit their home countries. His research, which had been approved by a university ethics committee, was to collect public statements by government and civil society organisations, and to conduct interviews with public officials and civil society leaders. The research was expected to benefit Tajikistan by showing, in international scholarship, how Tajikistan developed practices of conflict resolution that extend back to the successful resolution of the civil war in 1997.
Beyond what the Sodiqov case represents to researchers, it embodies a threat to the very ideals of democracy and freedom so frequently celebrated in Western universities and Western societies. Tajikistan’s worrisome crackdown on academic freedom reflects a government seeking to control narratives of what could, in the end, advance a dynamic civic space. It is through education that the ideals of better futures are advanced; and it is with great concern that we should monitor how Tajikistan handles Sodiqov. Continuing to treat him as a threat to the state jeopardizes the ideals of academic inquiry, and the hope many young Tajiks studying abroad have to live in a place that supports intellectual curiosity alongside the pursuit of Happiness.
* Follow and support Alexander Sodiqov's case here.