Muslims in China Tarred with Bin Laden's Brush

  • From: <abu_dajana@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx" <submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 31 Mar 2002 06:11:54 -0800

Muslims in China Tarred with bin Laden's brush

Mar 28th 2002 | KASHGAR, KHOTAN AND URUMQI 

September 11th gave China a handy excuse to repress its 
discontented Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Not that it 
really needed one. 

The dust-blown towns and villages on the southern edge 
of the Taklamakan desert form the front line of what 
China calls its own campaign against international 
terrorism. These ancient Silk Road oases, says its 
propaganda machine, harbour Muslim extremists intent on 
overthrowing Chinese rule with the backing of Osama bin 
Laden's terrorist network. That, at any rate, is the 
official version. Far more plausible, though, is that 
China is invoking Mr bin Laden's name to justify tight 
control over its Turkic-speaking Muslims, especially 
the Uighurs who dominate this part of the Xinjiang 
?autonomous? region in China's far west. 

In one town, a Uighur worker at a mosque waits for the 
prayer hall to empty before regaling foreign visitors 
with his grievances. ?We want to build our own 
country, but there's no way. If we try, we are 
immediately arrested and executed,? he says. Such 
sentiments are echoed by many Uighurs, whose Islamic 
culture has far more in common with that of the 
formerly Soviet Central Asian republics than with the 
rest of China. Some say that Chinese officials have 
clamped down even harder since the September 11th 
terrorist attacks in America, targeting religious 
activities in particular. 

In a report published last week, the human-rights group 
Amnesty International gave details of what it said was 
an intensifying campaign against suspected government 
opponents in Xinjiang. It quoted Uighur exiles as 
saying that some 3,000 people were detained in the 
crackdown between mid-September and the end of last 
year. Some have been sentenced to death and executed 
after summary trials. 

This does not necessarily indicate that China has 
greatly widened its net since September 11th. By 
Amnesty's calculation, tens of thousands of Uighurs 
have been rounded up in the last decade, and as early 
as April last year, China launched a nationwide 
?strike hard? campaign against serious crime, which 
in Xinjiang also targeted the ?three evils? of 
separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. Well 
before September 11th, the authorities were closing 
down unauthorised mosques and forcing imams to go to 
political-indoctrination classes. Mr bin Laden provides 
no more than a convenient excuse?and a belated one at 
that?for a continuing campaign of repression in 
Xinjiang. 

On the surface, Kashgar and Khotan?the two best-known 
hotbeds of Uighur nationalism in southern Xinjiang?
still appear relaxed. Apart from slogans condemning 
separatism draped over the entrances of many schools 
and other government-run institutions, there is little 
public evidence of the clampdown. Your correspondent 
drove the 300-odd miles between Kashgar and Khotan 
without being stopped for any identity check and saw no 
special security measures in either town or places in 
between. 

The authorities' low profile is in fact rather curious 
given China's claim in January that it had arrested 
more than 100 ?terrorists? who had ?sneaked into 
Xinjiang? after receiving training in Afghanistan and 
elsewhere. A government report said such terrorists had 
been conducting bombings in department stores, markets 
and other public places, as well as murdering officials 
and Uighur imams appointed by the Chinese government. 

China says terrorists fighting for an independent 
?East Turkestan??the name of two short-lived 
independent Uighur republics, set up in 1933 and 1944?
have carried out more than 200 attacks in Xinjiang 
since 1990.Yet the most recent explosion blamed on 
terrorists in the region occurred in 1998. Western 
diplomats dispute China's claims of complicity in such 
violence by overseas terrorist groups. Although several 
hundred Uighurs joined the Taliban in Afghanistan, 
?there is no evidence of any link between the Uighurs 
and al-Qaeda,? says a diplomat familiar with the 
region. 

China's portrayal of Uighur separatism as a part of a 
global terror problem is being seized upon by officials 
in some parts of Xinjiang to harass the Muslim 
population. In a village near Kashgar, a Uighur peasant 
says that he now dares not complain about excessive 
taxes imposed by the local authorities for fear of 
being labelled a separatist. A Uighur taxi driver in 
Khotan says his superiors have begun using the 
separatist brush to tar anyone who complains about 
working conditions. 

In the Khotan region, the authorities worry about the 
popularity of the conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam 
to which al-Qaeda subscribes. ?You can't say in public 
that you support the Wahhabi. Officials think it is 
anti-government,? says a resident who describes 
himself as a Wahhabi supporter. But in most parts of 
Xinjiang, and even in Khotan, Islam is as much if not 
more a badge of cultural identity than it is a 
religious conviction. A western diplomat describes the 
Wahhabism of Khotan as ?a protest theology? and says 
that many ?Wahhabis? have little idea what that 
really means. Most Muslims in Xinjiang practise the 
mystical?and far more liberal?Sufi form of Islam, 
which Wahhabis oppose. Some women who wear veils also 
wear mini-skirts. The puritanism of the Taliban 
movement would have little market here. One of the very 
few examples of Uighur interest in pan-Islamic causes 
was the uncovering by police last June of two cells of 
Hizb-ut Tahrir, a group seeking to establish an Islamic 
caliphate in Central Asia. 

Many Uighurs, like Muslims elsewhere, are opposed to 
the military campaign in Afghanistan. Yet they are also 
grateful for what they see as American sympathy for the 
Uighurs' plight. Asked who Uighurs regard as the leader 
of their cause, a 25-year-old trader in the provincial 
capital, Urumqi, said ?the only leader we have is 
Radio Free Asia?, which is funded by Congress. In its 
annual human-rights report on China published this 
month, the American State Department said many Uighurs 
had been detained for listening to the station, which 
the Chinese try to jam. 

Some Uighurs say their region is even more tightly 
controlled by China than neighbouring Tibet. Such 
resentment shows no sign of abating as China pumps more 
money into the region as part of a strategy adopted in 
1999 of encouraging investment in less developed 
western parts of the country. The perception of many 
Uighurs is that ethnic Han immigrants, who form some 
40% of the region's 18m people (up from a mere 6% in 
1949) are profiting most from the money. Should Hans 
and Uighurs become even more polarised, this could 
spawn exactly the kind of extremism that China most 
fears. 

2002 The Economist Newspaper and The 
Economist Group. 


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