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China’s Muslims. A Uighur man makes traditional noodles at his food stand in Kashgar, China’s westernmost city that is home to a majority Muslim population. Like neighboring Tibetans, Uighurs have long faced religious oppression in China and many desire greater autonomy in the Communist state.
China’s Muslims. A Uighur man makes traditional noodles at his food stand in Kashgar, China’s westernmost city that is home to a majority Muslim population. Like neighboring Tibetans, Uighurs have long faced religious oppression in China and many desire greater autonomy in the Communist state.
(Photo by Sean Harder/The Stanley Foundation)
Oppression. Uighur woman walks past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, the largest mosque in China where limits are placed on how the local Muslim population can worship. Moderate Central Asian Muslims like the Uighurs could play a cooperative role in the fight against terrorism but China’s repressive policies threaten to inspire new extremists.
Oppression. Uighur woman walks past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, the largest mosque in China where limits are placed on how the local Muslim population can worship. Moderate Central Asian Muslims like the Uighurs could play a cooperative role in the fight against terrorism but China’s repressive policies threaten to inspire new extremists.
(Photo by Sean Harder/The Stanley Foundation)
Rising Powers: China: Xinjiang
War on Terror or Misguided Muscle?
China’s underreported crackdown on Uighur Muslims could turn moderates into martyrs

The Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, China’s westernmost, oil-rich province, have long endured religious oppression: from unexplained detentions to rules against facial hair.

This Turkic-speaking minority of about 8 million people were once the majority in Xinjiang, an expansive area of deserts and mountains that makes up one-sixth of China and serves as a frontier to central Asia.

Today, Uighurs struggle to maintain their cultural and traditional way of life in the face of a massive state-sponsored migration that has brought more than 1.2 million ethic Chinese settlers to the area. As the region’s energy resources are exploited, Xinjiang’s cities, like its capital Urumqi, are becoming modern metropolises. There is money to be made, but most opportunities fall to the Chinese settlers as native Uighurs are left behind.

While many Uighurs want greater autonomy—or even a separate state—they seem to have little desire, or leadership, for an organized violent rebellion. Yet, in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, these moderate Sunni Muslims have borne the brunt of a little noticed Chinese religious crackdown.

“The worldwide campaign against terrorism has given Beijing the perfect excuse to crack down harder than ever in Xinjiang,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Other Chinese enjoy a growing freedom to worship, but the Uighurs, like the Tibetans, find that their religion is being used as a tool of control.”

Prior to becoming part of China, Xinjiang was an independent Turkic state known as the East Turkestan Republic. In the 1930s and ’40s, the East Turkestan Republic twice managed to liberate parts of its territory from the Republic of China before acceding to the People’s Republican Army in 1949. The region was renamed the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1955.

In 1945 Uighurs constituted 80 percent of Xinjiang’s population. Today, incentives for Han Chinese to move into the providence have reduced the Uighurs to only 43 percent of Xinjiang’s population.

Terrorist Attack or Grudge?
The most visible crackdown in Xinjiang occurred in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games after two Uighur men drove a dump truck into a group of mostly Han Chinese policeman in the westernmost city of Kashgar. The men reportedly tossed explosives and attacked officers with knives, killing 17.

The Chinese government later released a statement claiming the attacks were an attempt to sabotage the games by the East Turkestan Liberation Movement, a Uighur separatist group with alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

Kashgar residents, however, have reported a different story to journalists, human rights workers, and two Stanley Foundation staffers who visited the city in November. The attack, they said, was organized by a vegetable salesman after police brutally beat his brother, who was attempting to collect back payments for vegetable deliveries to the local police station. The salesman and his accomplice have since been sentenced to death.

Understanding the truth behind such attacks, and the extent of the Uighur separatist movement, is important. Moderate Central Asian Muslims like the Uighurs could play a cooperative role in the global fight against terrorism. Yet repressive Chinese policies, and a lack of international concern, holds the potential of inspiring new extremists.

Little Attention Paid
While US-based human rights groups have called attention to recent crackdowns in Xinjiang, it rarely gets media or diplomatic attention.

In her first official visit to China earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to put aside the issue of human rights to discuss what she described as more pressing political and economic issues.

Uighur dissidents held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay detention center have also become a troubling issue for the new Obama administration.

A federal appeals court has ruled the US government may continue to imprison the 17 Muslims even though it no longer considers them enemy combatants. The ruling comes after a lower court found no reason to hold them and ordered them released into the United States.

China is demanding the repatriation of the Uighurs, but human rights groups warn against the dangers of returning the detainees to the Chinese government.

The issue highlights just one of the complications the US war on terror has caused, said Atlantic writer James Fallows, who will end a three-year assignment reporting from China this year.

“This is one of the main areas the American 9/11 response had an effect on US-China relations,” Fallows said. “The US government was willing to define any Muslim group presumptively as part of the terrorist threat in the world, so it acquiesced to China’s view…of Xinjiang.”

Reports of Chinese efforts to suppress Uighur religion and culture are numerous. The US State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have recently condemned the treatment as a violation of international human rights standards.

A 2008 report by the State Department criticizes China’s use of “regulations restricting Muslims’ religious activity, teaching, and places of worship.” According to the report, religious institutions are strictly monitored, children are prohibited from religious education, Imams are regularly vetted to ensure their teachings support Chinese government authority, and passports are strictly controlled to prevent Muslims from pilgrimage travel.

Human rights groups have also documented cases of brutal beatings, detentions, and executions of Uighurs suspected of separatist activities.

While reports of religious repression might be similar to those that occur in Tibet, just south of Xinjiang, it rarely gets equal attention.

 “Westerners have a sort of romantic view of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism that they don’t have about Xinjiang Islam,” Fallows said. “I think that says more about the West than it does the differences between Xinjiang and Tibet.”
—Christina MacGillivray, Program Associate,
and Sean Harder, Program Officer,
The Stanley Foundation

Editors Note: Christina MacGillivray and Sean Harder visited the Xinjiang cities of Kashgar, Turpan, and Urumqi in November of 2008 to explore the Uighur Muslim issue in China.


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