There are roughly 22 million Muslims living in China today. The dominant Muslim minority group is the Uyghurs, a Sunni population who speak a Turkish dialect and live in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, home to 10 million Chinese Muslims.
- Unlike other Muslim groups, Uyghurs have demanded their independence and have sought to establish a separate political and religious entity in Xinjiang. In 1931 and 1944, backed by the then-Soviet Union, the Uyghurs effectively achieved independence.
- Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, Uyghurs have flocked to the Middle East. The Chinese government has alleged that “more than 1,000” Xinjiang separatists have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and claims to have arrested a hundred foreign-trained terrorists who made their way back to Xinjiang.
- The Chinese government has sought to dilute the Uyghur majority in Xinjiang by encouraging Han Chinese to resettle there. As a result, the Uyghurs represent today barely 45 percent of the population compared to having been a large majority in 1949.
- More terrorist attacks have been observed in China since the end of 2016. The attacks perpetrated by the Uyghurs follow almost the same patterns as those conducted by Islamic radicals in other places such as car-ramming, suicide bombers, and knife-wielding attackers. But the attacks are not publicized by the Chinese government, which keeps a tight grip on the information.
- The likely defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could potentially send back to China hundreds of Uyghurs who had been fighting in the ranks of the rebels, fully trained for guerilla warfare.
Islam has been present in China since the seventh century and has cohabited with the different Chinese dynasties that ruled China throughout history, although the attitude towards Islam and Muslims varied from time to time. At times Muslims were tolerated, and at times Muslims suffered persecution, hostility, discrimination, and oppression. At the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Muslim shrines and institutions were destroyed, and copies of the Koran were burnt in public.
In the late 1970s, the Chinese government adopted a conciliatory policy towards Islam and even attacked critics of Islam. According to Chinese statistics, the country has 34,928 mosques, 45,051 Muslims teachers and administrators, and 23,480 disciples studying in the Islamic theological institutes in various regions. However, the Chinese government continued to exert a harsher policy toward Muslim groups in different parts of the country, especially towards the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, home to 10 million Chinese Muslims. While allowing the Hui to practice their religion freely and turning a blind eye to their educational system and institutions, the Chinese central government pitted the Hui Muslims against their age-old enemies, the Uyghurs. Many times in the modern history of China, Hui troops were used to quell rebellions initiated by the Uyghurs, at the heavy price of massacres perpetrated by the Hui against the Uyghur population.
The Turkish-related Uyghurs were among the early converts to Islam and as such maintained an Islamic culture which has been present for centuries in their areas. One can find today the earliest sign of Islamic Uyghur culture in a village called Tuyoq (named after the Uyghur word tuyuq or “not passable”), situated in the Tuyugou valley in the Taklamakan desert, the heartland of Uyghur presence, where there is the holy shrine of the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar (the shrine of the friends’/saints’ cave). The “Mazar” is a small cave that serves as a prayer hall, on whose walls are inscribed the verses of the 18th chapter of the Koran. The cave commemorates the memory of the seven sons of the king of Yemen who arrived in the area 2,000 years ago, seeking the creator of the sun, the moon, the sky, and everything on earth. They fled to this very cave, guided by a local shepherd, after the local king had decided to kill them. The seven are believed to be buried in the cave and a record in the Koran seems to illustrate the legend of the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar entirely.
The importance of Tuyoq is paramount, not only to the Uyghurs but also for Muslim pilgrims from provinces surrounding Xianjiang – northwest China’s Gansu province and Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Turkey – who come to visit the holy shrine. According to popular belief, visiting the Mazar twice equals one hajj to Mecca. Some even stress the fact that any Uyghur must first stop at the Mazar before beginning his trip to Mecca. Local Uyghurs stress the fact that Tuyoq is nicknamed “Little Mecca,” having become – because of the travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities on Uyghurs – the alternative to the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. While many Mazars were destroyed during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the Tuyoq Mazar was left unharmed. According to locals, as in the ancient 2,000-year tradition, a dog kept guard of the Tuyoq Mazar, denying the Red Guards access to the cave.5
Out of the several Uyghur “separatist” movements and organizations, the U.S. Treasury Department listed as a terrorist organization the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in 2002. Several years earlier, the Chinese authorities classified ETIM as a terrorist organization funded by Osama Bin Laden. That same year, U.S. Marines captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan, detaining them at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on suspicion of being enemy combatants. They were ultimately released and relocated to Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and Pakistan.
In 1996, China signed the Shanghai Treaty with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, using the agreement to ask Central Asian states to dissuade their ethnic Uyghur minorities from supporting the separatist ETIM “in Xinjiang and to guarantee extradition of Uyghurs fleeing China.”This agreement has been enforced very actively since then by the Chinese, who used their influence with India to cancel an Indian visa given to an exiled Uyghur leader who China accused of being a terrorist. Moreover, China has played on the regional politics and tensions between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, conditioning its support on cooperation on the Uyghur issue with these regional players. China never missed an opportunity to thank its neighbors for their support of its policy towards the Uyghurs. Such was the case in April 2016 when the Chinese defense minister thanked Afghanistan for its support in fighting the separatist group.
In recent years since the radical Islamic revival worldwide, and especially following the so-called “Arab Spring,” the United Nations’ al-Qaida Sanctions Committee reported, “ETIM has set up bases outside China to train its members and afterwards to return to China to plot and execute terrorist acts including bombing buses, cinemas, department stores, markets, and hotels. ETIM has also undertaken assassinations and arson attacks and has carried out terrorist attacks against Chinese targets abroad.”
The UN committee continued: “ETIM has a close financial relationship with Al-Qaida. The major sources of funding for ETIM activities came from the (deceased) Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida and from organized crime such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, and looting.”
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, Uyghurs have flocked to the Middle East and joined the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime in Syria and the Iranian-backed Shiite regime in Iraq. The Uyghurs split into different jihadist militias, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The first reports that Uyghurs returned home from Syria emerged in July 2013, revealing that Uyghurs have been present in the combat areas long before. The Chinese government has alleged that “more than 1,000” Xinjiang separatists have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and claims to have arrested a hundred foreign-trained terrorists who made their way back to Xinjiang.
Fearing the irredentist currents provoked by the separatist Uyghurs and facing the increase of violence in Xinjiang Province, the Chinese central government has pursued a policy meant to neutralize the separatist tendencies in that region of China.
Transforming the Population Mix of Xinjiang Province
Since the inclusion of Xinjiang Province in the PRC, the Chinese central government has embarked on a policy of repression meant to eliminate the threat posed by Uyghur irredentists to the PRC. In order to do so, the first step in the implementation of that policy was aimed at diluting the Uyghur majority in the province and changing the population composition of Xinjiang province by encouraging Han Chinese to resettle in the province. The resettlement policy, together with huge investments in infrastructure, was, of course, to the detriment of the Uyghurs, who represent today barely 45 percent of the population in the province compared to having been a large majority in 1949. In fact, it seems that the Chinese authorities follow a pattern according to which the more the Uyghurs protest, the more the Chinese central government tries to dilute the percentage of Uyghurs living in the region by encouraging Han Chinese to settle there.
This policy led to resentment on the part of the Uyghurs, and consequently, sporadic hostilities erupted between China’s ethnic Han majority and the Uyghurs, in the course of which the authorities sided with the Han and conducted massive, bloody repressions among the revolting Uyghurs. Such was the case in February 1997 when the Peoples’ Liberation Army crushed a demonstration in Ghujla resulting in more than 100 Uyghurs killed and as many as 1,600 people arrested on charges of attempting to “split the motherland.” On July 5, 2009, a fight in a factory in Guangdong degenerated into a demonstration organized in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. Riots broke out followed by attacks against Han Chinese which left more than 200 dead.
Restricting the Freedom of Movement of the Uyghurs
Hundreds of Uyghurs have fled Xinjiang to reach Turkey, leading the PRC to exert pressure on its neighboring countries to hand over Uyghurs who have found refuge there. Trips abroad are understandably restricted, while Xinjiang residents in possession of passports had to hand them in to the commissariat of the police before May 15, 2015; their use had to be requested in advance. Passports not handed back on time were no longer valid.
Banning All Signs of Islamic Culture
Posters throughout the region ban Uyghurs from riding buses if they wear large beards, hijabs, burqas, niqabs, or clothing with the Islamic star and crescent (similar to the ones that appear in the Turkish flag). Taxis throughout the region are not allowed to pick up clients wearing banned beards. Reluctant Uyghurs are threatened “to be handled by police.” A man from Kashgar was sentenced to six years in jail for growing a beard, while his burqa-wearing wife was sentenced to two years. According to the Communist Party secretary of Kashgar, face veils represent a “cultural reverse” – a foreign import from the Middle East and not part of the Uyghur culture. In April 2015, Shaanxi Normal University in Xian issued an order banning female students from wearing veils, followed in May by an additional ban on wearing headscarves on campus. A male student was accused of “illegal preaching” after he was caught reading the Koran in a cafeteria at the same university.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the PRC has closed mosques in East Turkestan. Houses which served as an underground school for Koranic studies were torn down in March 2015 to set an example for those who support unofficial religious studies.
Beginning in 2015, the PRC banned all Muslim prayers and Islamic religious practices in government buildings, schools, and business offices in Xinjiang. Fines have also been imposed on those who use mobile phones and the internet to spread Islamic messages, while religious activities were restricted to authorized venues like mosques. The new rules forbid the dissemination of videos about jihad, extremism and terrorism, and demand that religious leaders report such activities to the local police.
In May 2015, Muslim shops and restaurants in northwestern Xinjiang were ordered to sell cigarettes and alcohol or face closure. However, consumers refusing to buy the products openly challenged the government policy to erase local Islamic customs.
According to Uyghur sources, the Chinese authorities encourage classical surveillance techniques to spy on Uyghurs. Neighbors, work colleagues, or classmates could all be informers. “The authorities have people they can rely on in every street. Mosques are under surveillance, and they have cameras inside.”
In mid-2014, residents of Kizilsu village in Jiashi county in the Kashgar prefecture were summoned to sign a “joint responsibility contract” issued by the village office of the Communist Party. The village government threatened to apply collective punishment if the villagers did not strictly abide by 30 specific regulations, such as reporting forbidden activities, unusual travel from and to the area, teaching and promoting Islam, unusual land transactions, refusing to read official announcements, or those who suddenly quit smoking or drinking alcohol.
The Chinese authorities make use of their military to deter Uyghurs. During Ramadan, the police activate a surveillance alert, and tanks and armed police are deployed on every corner.
In September 2015, the Chinese authorities issued a ban on 22 Muslim names among Uyghurs, threatening to prevent children with such names from attending schools unless their parents change them. The banned male names were Bin Laden, Saddam, Hussein, Arafat, Mujahid, Mujahidulla, Asadulla, Abdel Aziz, Seyfulla, Gukdulla, Seyfeddin, Zikrulla, Nesrulla, Shemseddin, and Pakhirdin. The banned female names were Amanet, Muslime, Mukhlise, Munise, Aishe, Fatima, and Khadicha.
The Perspective Ahead
It is obvious that the Chinese PRC has not succeeded in containing ETIM. The measures adopted against the Uyghurs have boomeranged to such an extent that more terrorist attacks have been observed in the provinces and outside China since the end of 2016. Moreover, as reported by a U.S. think tank in July 2016, Chinese religious restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang may have driven more than 100 to join ISIS. The attacks perpetrated by the Uyghurs follow almost the same patterns as those conducted by Islamic radicals (ISIS and others) in other places worldwide such as car-ramming, suicide bombers, and knife-wielding attackers. But, unlike other places on the globe, the attacks are not publicized by the Chinese government, which keeps a tight grip on the information. As a Reuter‘s correspondent put it: “The government has delayed reporting some previous incidents in Xinjiang, and limits on foreign journalists working there make it almost impossible to reach an independent assessment of the region’s security.”
The likely defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the advance of Assad’s troops in Syria could potentially send back to China hundreds of Uyghur fighters who have been fighting in the ranks of the rebels, fully trained for guerilla warfare. This could be of great impact in the manner in which the separatist Uyghurs are waging their war today. Added to the latest threats pronounced by Uyghurs to “shed blood like rivers” and contemplating Chinese behavior, one can anticipate that the Uyghur problem has grown to a dimension unknown in the past.
With this in mind, one can understand the sudden march organized by the local government of thousands of armed officers and paramilitary officers through the southern city of Hotan in a “shock and awe campaign” against terrorism and separatism, and the unprecedented offer of $14.5 million in rewards for anti-terror tips distributed “absolutely confidentially” on a scale based on the quality of the information and its relevance: the lowest reward goes for reporting face coverage and robes, as well as youth with long beards. Reporting violent terrorists and religious extremists establishing ties or inciting or swearing oaths of jihad, or clues about cross-border activities, can be rewarded by almost $500,000. The highest reward goes to reporting “inside operational information,” which entitles the informant to almost $750,000.