As the ethnic minority Uighur Muslims in China face increased discrimination from the Chinese government, various outlets estimate there are around 300 Uighur Chinese natives fighting for jihad with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The ostracized ethnic and religious group has repeatedly been confronted by persecution from the officially atheist Communist Party, which suggests the relationship between the ethnic Han dominated government and the Uighur people is a driving factor for ISIS tactics of radicalization and recruitment of Uighur Muslims.
The so-called Islamic State caliphate recently released a video threatening China with attacks at home, apparently as a retaliation for Beijing’s treatment of the demographic. The thirty minute propaganda piece said that the terrorists would “shed blood like rivers” in China. ISIS also killed a captive Chinese native in 2015. The video they released proclaiming war on China came on the same day the Chinese police held an armed rally in support of putting an end to national security threats in the province where Uighur Chinese live.
The Turkic speaking Uighurs—they’re more akin to Central Asian cultures than Han Chinese—come from the western-most autonomous province of Xinjiang, and is rich in natural resources for which it was a key stop along the Silk Road. Xinjiang shares their border with eight different countries including a small border with Afghanistan as well as a border on much of the porous and contested region of the Pakistani Kashmir. As the dominant Han ethnic group migrates into Xinjiang in response to the promise of prosperity, the ability for increased Uighur extremists to cross into the Middle East and join ISIS, as well as the possibility of terrorists entering China to attack domestically, are prevalent concerns as the threat of terrorism looms. The government seems to be heading towards a collision with Islamic militants by exacerbating the situation with their harsh rhetoric around keeping a single Chinese identity and eliminating the dangers of separatism, militant extremism, and terrorist activities.
Amidst consistent calls by President Xi Jinping for forging a single Chinese identity out of those who identify with a different cultural or ethnic nationality, the government in Beijing has issued warnings about extremism, calling for a “people’s war” against terrorism. There is a growing sentiment that Islam is becoming a larger problem for China, much like the rest of the world in its expanding Islamophobia. A top Party official, Sharhat Ahan, warned other political leaders in the Xinjiang province that the “international terror situation” is “destabilizing” China. The Communist Party has also increased surveillance and patrols in Xinjiang province while armed demonstrations have been consistently conducted “to declare war against terrorists.”
But the crackdown goes much further than rhetoric and political theatre, the government has banned fasting during Ramadan, prohibited long beards and Islamic headwear, restricted use of the Turkic language, forbid the call to prayer at government sanctioned and supervised mosques, and banned children under the age of 18 from entering their places of worship at all. Government security forces in Xinjiang killed 28 people in 2015, calling the people “terrorists.” Human rights groups contested the use of the nomenclature, saying Beijing has failed to provide suitable evidence that there is a foreign-directed terrorist organization working against the Chinese state. The Party also seized the Uighur population’s passports and are refusing to issue new ones, which therefore places travel restrictions on Uighurs in Xinjiang. With many residents saying that the Communist Party is warring on Islam, these laws are at the very least an addition to the lack of acknowledgement for the Uighur plight, culture and language. The attacks that have been carried out against China have been met with increased discrimination and persecution, aggravating the cyclical conflict between the minority group and the Han government.
Though the Communist Party denies the allegations of religious discrimination, the apparent persecution of the Uighurs has set off an increase in the wave of violence in both Xinjiang and abroad that has been happening on and off for years. There were race riots between the Han and Uighur cultures that killed around 200 people of both ethnicities in 2009. Then in 2011, there was a series of violent incidents in Xinjiang known as the Kashgar Attacks that left dozens dead and hundreds more injured. Furthermore, an ignited car was driven into Tiananmen Square in 2013 that killed five people. Historically, the violence is attributed to an influential separatist group within the Uighur culture called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, who are considered a terrorist group by the United States and Britain. The separatist movement has repeatedly advocated for a sovereign country distinct from China since 1949 when they briefly established an East Turkestan state before being taken under Chinese rule. The problems between them have only increased since then.
Uighur citizens have been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan for decades, and now they are waging jihad with ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist militants in Syria and Iraq. Other extremists have moved to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia while there are also refugees fleeing the religious persecution in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan. New America Foundation, a Washington, DC based think-tank, reported in a study on leaked documents from an ISIS defector showing the new jihadist recruits are fresh in their extremism, have not had experience in the pursuit of jihad, and are not from the long established East Turkestan Separatist Movement. This indicates the propaganda tools used by the Islamic State are mobilizing young, poor, and uneducated Uighurs who do not have a history with terrorism to become radicals who are traveling abroad to join the terrorist organization in their fight against infidels.
As an apparent response to the proliferation of Chinese terrorists exacerbated at least in part by the laws and rhetoric of the government, the Communist Party finally acknowledged the plight of the Uighur people, with Prime Minister Li Keqiang promoting the financial prosperity of the Xinjiang province and the Uighurs within it.
“Let the people, especially the young, have something to do and money to earn,” he said to Communist Party officials in Xinjiang.
This could be an indication of policy change in regards to Uighur Muslims, but amidst the recent hardening in rhetoric concerning Islam and increased level of domestic terrorist threats, the relationship between the Chinese government and the Uighur population is still on a collision course that will not likely end well for either group. The government is contributing to religious extremism both in the province of Xinjiang and abroad while Uighur Chinese are mistreated, discriminated against, and persecuted for simply practicing their religion. As long as this persist, Uighur Muslims will continue to be radicalized and will join the ranks of ISIS and other terrorist groups to fight for jihad against who they perceive are infidels, which now officially includes, among the United States and Europe, the Chinese government.
Ryan Beitler is a journalist, fiction writer, vicious traveler, musician, and blogger. He has written for PASTE Magazine, Addiction Now, OC Weekly, and his travel blog Our Little Blue Rock. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org