The execution of Juma Tahir, the Uighur imam of the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, the largest in China, earlier last month has raised concerns about the nature of religious extremism in Xinjiang. It comes as no surprise since these imams are mostly handpicked by the Central Chinese authorities and are targeted repeatedly for endorsing state apparatuses. What is China’s game-plan? Will they succeed in effectively curbing the ethno-religious radicalisation in Xinjiang?
The 2000 National Census suggests that of the 10 recognised Muslim Minzu (nationalities) in China, Uighurs constitute around 8 million, amounting to 45.2 per cent of the total Xinjiang population. Most adhere to Sunni Islam; some, mostly of Tajik origin, followers Shia Islam; and some have Sufi influence. According to the state-controlled Islamic Association of China – that coordinates the annual pilgrimages to Mecca – there are 30,000-40,000 mosques with equal numbers of imams in China catering to the religious sentiments of these communities.
A closer look at the structure of this organisation reveals that its primary goal is to bring all the Muslims in China under the ambit of the Central Chinese government. One of the stated missions is to “unify Muslims in participating in the socialist construction of the motherland.” For this purpose, it imparts training to imams and all religious teachers and the state draws upon their assistance as and when required. For instance, both the President Xilalunding Chen Guangyuan and the Vice-President Juma Tahir of the Islamic Association of China declared the Urumqi riots in 2009 as “against the principles of Islam.” Juma Tahir had also been repeatedly urging Uighurs “not to fall into the traps set by exiled separatists.”
This incessant supervision of day-to-day religious practices has led to intermittent clashes in the region over denial of religious freedom. The recent incidents in Kashgar, Yarkand and Urumqi over the past few months are but a mere reflection of this tension. Under the pretext of building harmony between Hans and Uighurs by prohibiting the practice of religion in public spaces, the state has resorted to repressive policies such as banning of headscarves, public religious gatherings, prohibition of Ramadan fasting and has even outlawed residents wearing clothing with the Islamic star and crescent symbol from boarding buses – especially throughout the time of the sports competition held in August 2014 in the north-western city of Karamay.
Besides economic deprivation due to Han-Uighur prejudice, some common grievances of the Uighurs remain: ‘accusations’ of premeditated and terrorist acts by Uyghurs, unverified reports of separatist activities, extrajudicial killing of Uyghur families, mass show-trials aimed at deterring common Uyghurs from joining the terrorist groups, inaccessibility to basic human rights, shutdown of communication networks, the ban on foreign travel especially for religious purposes and the lack of political autonomy for the province.
There have also been reports of creation of fake websites and organisations in the name of Uighur radicals to support repressive policies in Xinjiang. Uighur leaders or dissidents critical of the central government’s policies are coming under the scanner; and are sometimes even arrested or silenced. For instance, Ilham Tohti, an Uighur professor at China’s Minzu University in Beijing was recently detained on his way to the US for criticising China’s Xinjiang policies.
Already the obliteration of old city cultures had been creating tensions in Xinjiang. Now there have been reports that the government has been found abetting Han immigrants with generous government subsidies, including grants for seeds and fertilisers to Han farmers, free farm equipment and other opportunities to defray the costs of farming at the cost of local Uighurs, leading to further escalation of schism with the state. The relative instability of Xinjiang as a border region also makes assimilation difficult. China continues to be wary of radical Islamic influences from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Central Asian countries.
Nonetheless, radicalisation of the Uighur youth is a crucial indicator of the failure of the overall strategies of the Chinese authorities or the Go West Campaign, seeking to assimilate the province through suppressive policies like that of implanting the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) or Bingtuan and the Strike Hard campaigns. New initiatives like the One year crackdown conceived by the new leadership under Xi Jinping also reflect the inability of the state to handle the situation.
Though, previously, some Muslim communities like the Hui’s have been effectively assimilated into the Chinese scaffold due to their lingual adaptation (learning Mandarin) and openness to economic incentives, the presence of large number of female imams and the fact that they are not perceived as presenting a threat to the state have greatly helped. But the Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking communities have not been forthcoming to adapt to Mandarin or the bilingual education system and detest economic and cultural repression by the state. The situation is unlikely to change until an earnest effort is made by the state to accommodate the aspirations of these communities. Else, further radicalisation and reprisal possibly abetted by the Islamic State (Phoenix Weekly) which has vowed to revenge the prohibition of “Muslim Rights” in Xinjiang could pose a real challenge to China.