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China's Muslim Problem By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 23, 2008

On October 21, a U.S. Court of Appeals moved to block the immediate release of 17 Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo Bay, overturning a federal judge’s order this June to set the men free after seven years in detention. The legal controversy surrounding their detention serves as an occasion to reflect on the status of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, which makes up an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the China’s population, and which remains little-understood in the West.

First and foremost, the Chinese government considers the country’s 8.5 million Uighurs a threat to national security. Earlier this week, for instance, Chinese authorities declared that most of its domestic Muslim terrorists – that is, the Uighur – have close ties with similar groups operating base camps in Pakistan, which borders China’s northwest Xinjiang province. 

Also this week, the Chinese government issued mug shots of eight Uighurs suspected in attacks prior to this summer’s Beijing Olympics, when Uighur separatists struck Chinese targets over a dozen times. Those attacks included a brazen assault on a police station that left sixteen officers dead. All the suspects are alleged members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which the U.N. says is a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, recently said that there is overwhelming evidence that Uighur terrorists are being trained at ETIM camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gunaratna reports that a village “exclusively for the Uighurs" has been built in the White Mountains of Afghanistan near Jalalabad and the Pakistan border.

These warnings underscore China’s mutually suspicious relationship with its Uighur minority. Residing in the north-west Chinese province of Xinjiang, the Uighur’s are Turkic Muslims. Their language is closer to Turkish than to Chinese, and their women often wear burkas. The Uighurs have never accepted Communist rule, so a cycle of sporadic unrest and subsequent crackdowns by Chinese authorities has persisted for decades. Of these the most recent came after the August Olympics, when the Chinese government waited until the Western media had decamped to crack down on the Uighurs.

The government’s suspicions of the Muslims in its midst have been heightened by the Uighur’s ties to radical Islamic groups and charities. Out of concerns that Xinjiang’s mosques have been financed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Chinese authorities have closely monitored Uighur places of worship.

This year, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the government implemented strict rules governing all aspects of Uighur religious life. Henceforth, according to a recent report out of Xinjiang province, “official versions” of the Koran will be the only legal ones; imams will be barred from teaching the Koran in private; the study of Arabic will be allowed only at special government schools; and Muslim students and government workers will be “compelled to eat” during the Ramadan fast. Those Uighurs wishing to make the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, will be obligated to do so through government-run tours that are virtually unaffordable to the average Chinese Muslim.

Not surprisingly, the nation’s “official” Muslim spokesmen have tried to put their co-religionists’ situation in the most positive light. Chen Guangyuan, the president of the China Islamic Association, has claimed that Muslims in the country are enjoying a religious renewal. "Governments at various levels have attached great importance to religious issues, and have implemented financial policies to assist their development," Chen has said. In his role as a government representative, Chen could hardly suggest otherwise.

Official repression is just one source of the tension between China and its Muslim minority. Another can be found in the Uighurs’ native Xinjiang province, which they share, in varying states of unease, with an almost equal number of Han Chinese. China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han have a different language and religion than the Uighurs and view their Muslim neighbors with suspicion. “The Uighurs are lazy,” one Han businessman was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. “It’s because of their religion. They spend so much time praying. What are they praying for?” For their part, the Uighur have tended to see the Han as agents of the Chinese government. For instance, the Uighur accuse Beijing of encouraging Han settlement in Xinjiang as an intimidation tactic.

No one familiar with China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists and followers of the Falun Gong religious group will be surprised by its repressive treatment of the Uighurs. The discomforting question, however, is whether the government’s serial crackdowns are justified by the very real threat of Islamic terrorism.

Opinions differ. Groups like Human Rights Watch insist that the Uighur are blameless. They equate Uighur separatism with the peaceful Tibetan struggle for independence. But others are skeptical. Robert Spencer of JihadWatch urges skepticism toward Uighur groups’ claims that they “don’t espouse violence.” “They don't espouse violence. They espouse Sharia,” Spencer observes. “Does China want to live under Sharia?”

This prospect seems highly unlikely, to be sure, since the Chinese government is crippled by no moral qualms about how to respond to terrorism. The Chinese Muslims being held in Guantanamo Bay would have been tortured and killed long ago had they been captured by the Chinese instead of the Americans. In fact, this was the main argument against repatriating them to China after all these years.

Still, the Guantanamo detainees’ case suggests that Spencer is right to caution against romantic depictions of Uighurs as noble victims of Chinese oppression. Although they are not considered a threat to the United States, the Uighurs at Guantanamo are suspected members of the ETIM terror group and reportedly received weapons training in Afghanistan. That fact does not justify all of the repressive measures that China has taken against its Muslim minority, but it does indicate that Chinese suspicions about their Islamic countrymen are not entirely unjustified.

Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.

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