Alumnus of the Year 2021: Rashid Gabdulhakov: “through my work, I aim to spotlight people, places, and cases that are underrepresented, misrepresented, or simply ignored in academia”

Rashid Gabdulhakov is a graduate of 2013 of the MA Programme in Politics and Security from Uzbekistan. This year Rashid received the Alumnus of the Year 2021 Award for his professional development and achievements after the graduation from the OSCE Academy. On 7 October 2021, Rashid successfully defended his dissertation entitled “Digital Vigilantism in Russia: Citizen-led Justice in the Context of Social Change and Social Harm” and obtained a PhD degree in Media and Communication (Cum Laude). Upon defending, Rashid became an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Q: Rashid, this year you received the award of Alumnus of the Year, what does that mean to you? And what role has the OSCE Academy played in your life?

The OSCE Academy has a very special place in my heart. Of course, I met Natasha [ed: Rashid’s wife Natasha is also alumna of the OSCE Academy] here, I made some life-long friends and gained so much knowledge. Sometimes I sound like a broken record, but I do not get tired of repeating that the OSCE Academy is the best and most effective project of the Organization. The reason I say this, is that it offers a unique forum for people to come together, learn and coproduce knowledge. I am also endlessly happy about the fact that I stay connected with the new generations of the Academy’s students. As soon as I started my PhD project in the Netherlands, I contacted the Academy’s administration and proposed to introduce a cybersecurity module as something that is crucial, yet often neglected in security studies. It has been a true blessing to be able to teach this course and inspire students to look beyond the traditional and ‘hard’ security in the ever-evolving world. One important point to add here is that any institution is nothing without the great people that faithfully and tirelessly work towards its success. In this regard, the strong alumni network of the Academy is a major success factor.

Q: Everyone recently congratulated you on your new title of Doctor of Philosophy, please tell us about your dissertation work. Why and how did you come up with the topic of “Digital Vigilantism in Russia”?

I did not come up with it, I was lucky enough to be supervised by the mastermind behind this project – Dr. Daniel Trottier. In 2016 I was actively looking for a PhD position and considered the ‘usual suspects’ of Germany and the UK, when suddenly I came across an ad for a position in the Netherlands. I was reading through the description and began to have shivers of excitement as this was exactly what I wanted to study – citizen-led justice manifested online in Russia. Now I had to make sure that the other side is as interested in me as I was interested in the project. After several online interviews and an in-person meeting in Rotterdam, I got the position. This is another thing I say on repeat, but it is ultimatly true  - I enjoyed every single day of my PhD. I got to focus on the topic I am passionate about and research it for four years. In the meantime, I also had the chance to teach and develop as an educator. I would highly recommend the Netherlands as a destination for PhD. I will be happy to tell anyone interested more over (virtual) coffee.
Back to the research itself, vigilantism is a grossly under-researched phenomenon. In the basic understanding, it is an act where citizens replace police forces and become the judge, the jury, and executioner. However, there is more nuance to this in the sense of citizen reaction to perceived breaching of legal vs moral boundaries by other citizens. Things get even more complex in the online domain. When something is shared across social media platforms, people tend to react instantly without any proper investigation of the situation at hand. Targets can get exposed for things they said, a Tweet from a decade ago, or their political views. Sometimes it is just enough to be who you are, as hate groups target people for their skin colour, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. This exposure can damage a person’s reputation and can lead to physical retaliation. However, collective citizen-led justice pursuit can also have a positive side to it. Think about the anti-corruption campaigns and global movements such as #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter, for instance. It is a complicated phenomenon which cannot be framed as fundamentally good or bad.

Q: As a young boy in Namangan City, Uzbekistan, could you imagine yourself being Assistant Professor teaching at the University of Groningen, and receiving a PhD in the Netherlands?

Funny enough, growing up, I was certain that I would never teach, as everyone in my family is an educator and I witnessed all the challenges of this profession. Yet I also saw the rewarding side. My father is a university professor and after fifty years of teaching, he is still working; he cannot live without his true passion. Now I completely understand why. I absolutely love teaching and don’t ever feel like I am ‘going to work’. I wake up and I get to do what I love the most, and, in doing so, I can pay my bills – a wonderful combination, albeit cliché sounding.
This journey, however, was filled with challenges and self-discovery. When I was a bachelor student in the United States, majoring in political science, I was hoping to create change in the world, but had no idea how I could do it. During my master’s studies at the OSCE Academy, I discovered the value of research in informing the decision-making process, but struggled to find a way of connecting the two. My second master’s degree at the University of Geneva and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy has offered me the exposure to world-level decision-makers, while sealing my appreciation for scientific inquiries. I gained competence to produce knowledge. Now I needed to find a proper setting to conduct research and teach. I enjoy being in academia, but I am also conscious of its numerous problems such as gender, ethnic, national, economic, political and other inequalities and biases. I share these concerns with students and colleagues. Only together and through open and honest forum we can strive for making academia a better place.

Q: Another recent important event in your life is the birth of your son! Could you please tell us about your experience being a father, a professor and working on your PhD dissertation during the pandemic lockdown?

Having a child is an experience that fundamentally transforms you. First of all, it made me appreciate my parents even more. They raised five children; I really cannot imagine how they did this heroic deed. Moreover, you reconsider your priorities. Before our son Arthur-Daniel came into our lives, I could spend 12 hours at work on a given day, then work some more at home and work on the weekend. I do not do this anymore. I cherish the precious time we spend together and balance work and life. Luckily, in the Netherlands work-life balance is something that is respected and encouraged, although not always realistic in academia due to the job demands. In the final year of my PhD trajectory, I obviously had to write a lot and had quite a heavy teaching load. One of the hardest periods was winter 2021, as we were recovering from COVID, it was dark and gloomy outside, there was curfew across the Netherlands and it felt like we were just in complete isolation. In this respect, hugging Arthur, seeing his smile and observing his development had a healing effect. Nothing else matters in the world, really.

Q: What are your aspirations for the future?

As I like to state in my CV, “through my work, I aim to spotlight people, places, and cases that are underrepresented, misrepresented, or simply ignored in academia”. What I plan on doing in the future builds largely on what has been done in the last five years. I enjoy teaching and aim to continue striving to be the best educator I can be. Knowledge valorization is important to me and I will keep delivering tailored courses for aspiring scholars and civil society leaders in Central Asia. Furthermore, I believe it is my duty to continue including the region in the current scientific inquiries and debates in the domain of media and communication. As part of the de-Westernisation curriculum, I bring in cases and examples from Central Asia in the courses I teach here in the Netherlands. I would like to produce more empirical research covering the region and while doing so, I hope to connect with local scholars and co-produce knowledge.

Q: Finally, what would you like to advise to our graduating class? Any professional tips?

Perhaps, I will not be very original, but these five steps have worked for me. I think they are applicable to different domains; be it career or personal life. First, I would suggest finding your own way, without blindly following anyone’s advice, like this one here, otherwise you will have no ownership of your decisions. Second, find your true passion and pursue it, do not settle for anything less, then you will be happy. Third, aim high but start small. Every small step has value. Fourth, never stop learning. The world is in constant flux and we must continuously adapt. Finally, do not be afraid to fail. Learn from your mistakes and keep going.