Discourses surrounding the ‘war on terror’ have proved useful in China’s concerted efforts to deny the rights of the Uyghur population, who faced yet another deadly attack on 23 April
The turn of the millennium has signalled a new era for Islam and its relationship with the western world. Whereas the IRA and Irish republicanism were the focus of British anti-terror efforts in the latter half of the twentieth century, and communism and the Soviets were the great threat that engaged America’s attentions, in the twenty-first century terrorism has a new face: Islamism.
It is no surprise then that 9/11 has also meant a new era for the Uyghur community of Xinjiang Province, North-Western China; a Muslim Turkic minority, numbering some eight to ten million. While the Uyghurs have been struggling against an overt policy of monoculturalism, monolingualism and assimilation that the People’s Republic of China has been pursuing in earnest since the 1970s, it is only through a context of Islamic terrorism that the hitherto unknown Uyghurs have become a noteworthy topic of discussion in European and American politics.
The events of September 11th and the political atmosphere it created allowed the Chinese state to label so-called Uyghur nationalists as Islamists. As Arienne M. Dwyer asserts in The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse, “The United States through its so-called ‘war on terror(ism)’ allowed itself to be misled by post-9/11 Chinese media reports on the relationship between the Uyghurs and Islamic militants. In so doing, the United States has conflated Uyghur nationalism with ‘terrorism’, thus justifying US-Chinese government collaboration in the Chinese Communist Party’s project to suppress its own minorities”.
In short, the dominant discourse of terrorism in western politics over the last 13 years has given China the opportunity to make use of the now well-established, readily available and ultimately convenient label of “Islamic terror” in its attempts to demonise the Uyghur population in the international sphere, while it continues its attack on them domestically.
After the latest clashes between civilians and the Chinese authorities on 23 April in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, leaving 21 people dead (with 16 of those said to be Uyghurs), foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the Uyghurs involved of plotting to “carry out violent terrorist activities”.
Furthermore, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, “Chinese officials and state media said the violence erupted after community officials on patrol were attacked by Uyghur ‘terrorists’ armed with knives at a house in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township”.
The Uyghur American Association gives a very different account of the incident, reporting that, “A resident of the region who reached US broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported that the incidents arose when three people connected to paramilitary forces called ‘Social Workers’ and the local government tried to forcefully remove the veil from a female member of the household while searching the house. The massacre occurred when the dispute between the members of the household and the militia turned into a confrontation, and the troops tied to the Chinese occupation forces fired rounds at the home and later set it on fire”.
The label of “terrorism” is also being used by state media in order to turn its own public opinion against the Uyghur community. It is interesting to note that a reported attack on a Uyghur student by his Han Chinese classmates at the Beijing-based Central University for Nationalities, directly followed the violence in Kashgar. Mehmetjan Ali was left hospitalised after being attacked by three classmates in his dormitory. Although he was said to be in a stable condition it does beg the question, why was Mehmetjan Ali discriminated against by his classmates? And what does this say about the kind of information the Chinese public is receiving about the Uyghur community?
Adil Abbas, a Uyghur activist and vice-president of the Uyghur Canadian Society claims that, “It is obvious that the dominant force of hate crimes such as what happened in the Central University for Nationalities is the Chinese government itself because their state-sponsored media always lies and slanders about the Uyghurs… They heavily painted Uyghurs with terrorism charges to cover government violence against the Uyghurs, increasing hatred against the Uyghurs”.
The lack of transparency surrounding the Chinese state and its relationship with its ethnic minorities makes it very difficult to report accurately on what is happening to the Uyghurs in China. Following the Urumqi riots of 2009, Chinese officials refused to allow independent investigators into East Turkestan. Similarly, Beijing dismissed calls from the US for an independent investigation into the events in Kashgar this April, claiming that this was evidence of an American “double standard”. Therefore, Chinese state media can effectively say anything about the Uyghurs and there is very little opportunity for independent organisations or representatives to investigate their claims.
The context of the “war on terror” has proved a useful smokescreen behind which the People’s Republic of China can abuse the rights of its Muslim minorities. Despite the fact that the US State Department released a report claiming “severe official repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and harsh restrictions on the movement” of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, America’s own campaign against Islamic terror makes it difficult for them to criticise China’s efforts to tackle an alleged terrorist threat within their own borders.
The reality, of course, is that for decades the Uyghur community has been struggling against Chinese state oppression while the world has done little more than look on. Throughout these struggles the Uyghur cause has been labelled many things by the People’s Republic, including “nationalism” and “separatism”. The label of “Islamic terrorism” is just the latest justification with which the state can continue to abuse the rights and freedoms of an important segment of their population. Certain important questions, however, remain: if it is the threat of Islamic fanaticism that China is worried about why does it continue to pursue a campaign of marginalisation of the Uyghur language?; why have publications exploring ancient Uyghur history and literature been banned?; and why are the Hui Muslims who have been assimilated linguistically and culturally, and who are ethnically closer to the Han Chinese than the Uyghurs, not been subject to the same scrutiny and discrimination despite the fact that many of the Huis are devout Sunni Muslims?
The Uyghurs have been native inhabitants of what is now North-Western China for over 4000 years and have, for most of this time, lived in relative peace with their Han neighbours. It is only through the Chinese state policy of the latter twentieth and twenty-first century that the harmony has been so severely disrupted.
The Uyghurs are a diverse group of people with varying degrees of religious adherence. This is not to claim that there are no strands of Islamic fanaticism that run through the Uyghur community. As with every community, they have their extremists. Also, as China asserts, certain individuals of the Uyghur community may have had connections with Al-Qaeda (who seem to have a knack for trying to hijack any cause that involves Muslims). However, the accusation that the Uyghur community as a whole, or even as a significant minority, poses some kind of Islamic terror threat to the security of China – as well as the use of the label ‘terrorist’ to distract people from the concerted abuse of Uyghur freedoms by the state – is utterly unacceptable.
Image from: http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/10/20/china-detainees-disappeared-after-xinjiang-protests
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