19 September 2015

Who are the Uighurs?

Anthony Measures
16 Sep 2015

China's Muslim Uighur community has gained international attention both for concerns over its religious freedom, and over links to terrorism at home and abroad. Anthony Measures examines the status of the community.

Amid reports on restrictions on Islamic practice for Uighur residents of Xinxiang province in China, the community has been brought to world attention. However, this focus is accompanied by concern over extremism in the region, following a growing number of attacksby militants, speculation over Uighur involvement in the 2015 Bangkok bombing, and a number of Uighurs travelling to join ISIS. The Uighurs are a majority Muslim indigenous ethnic group from Xinjiang province, also known as East Turkestan, in north west China, with a history and culture distinct from the Han Chinese majority.

Counter-terrorism in Xinjiang

In the 1990s a movement for the independence of East Turkestan – as Xinjiang province is also known – gave rise to a number of Uighur separatist groups in the province, some of which launched attacks against the Chinese government. The most well known of these groups is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Muslim separatist group founded in 2000 by Hasan Mahsum, a Uighur from Xinjiang's Kashgar region.

Little is known about the group and the extent of its operations, but China and United States believe the group has links with al-Qaeda. Although there are doubts as to whether the group is as active in the country now as previously, China has often blamed the ETIM or its sympathisers for violent incidents in Xinjiang and other regions, and along with the United States and the UN Security Council has designated the group as a terrorist organisation.

Hasan Mahsum was killed by Pakistani troops in October 2003, but since 2007 the group has become more active in South and Central Asia, including in Pakistan, with support of theTaliban and al-Qaeda. Reports suggest that ETIM has sent its members to al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps, and once trained they have traveled to Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and China to carry out acts of violence. Pakistan's efforts against the group led its President to announce in September 2015 that "almost all" members of the group had been eliminated from Pakistani soil.

Turkey has a long history of engagement with the Uighurs

The international effects of the unrest are not limited to China's western neighbours. In addition to the presence of ETIM fighters in Pakistan, Afghanistan and further afield, Turkey has a long history of engagement with the Uighurs. Many Turkish nationalists regard the community as part of a broad family of ethnic Turks. They have lobbied successive Turkish governments to offer refuge to those fleeing Chinese rule and to allow Uighurs to campaign against Beijing's policies from within Turkey. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described an outbreak of violence in Urumqi that killed at least 156 as "genocide." Relations had improved sufficiently by 2012 for Erdogan to visit China, but still went first to Xinjiang province.

In 2015, Turkish ire was directed at Thailand, after the country deported 109 Uighurs back to China, out of 400 who had been arrested in March 2014 for illegally entering the country. While some international human rights groups expressed concerns over the deportation, Chinese reports suggested that the Uighurs in question had been radicalised by ETIM and had been on their way to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Chinese authorities estimate that there are already around 300 Uighurs fighting with the group.

China's domestic counter-terrorism effort in Xinjiang is mainly focused on the ETIM. Following a number of bombings in 2014, including one in May at a market place in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 43 (including four attackers) and injured nearly 100, China's National People's Congress reviewed a draft of the country's first counter-terrorism law. This was to set up bodies at the national, provincial and prefecture levels; to create a procedure for designating individuals and organisations as terrorists; and to authorise overseas anti-terrorism operations. The US State Department's Report on Terrorism, published in June 2015, says that the Chinese government has implemented a number of programmes aimed at countering radicalisation and violent extremism, concentrating much of its efforts in Xinjiang.

Religious Freedom

However, the State Department's International Religious Freedom report, published in 2014, continued China's designation as a Country of Particular Concern: a categorisation it has held since 1999. According to the report, counter-terrorism efforts accompanied a wide-scale crackdown on religious expression in Xinjiang, with restrictions on private religious practices, and close monitoring of Uighurs returning from madrassas overseas. More recently, reports emerged of Chinese authorities banning public sector workers in Xinjiang province from fasting during Ramadan, a policy that has been employed by the government over a number of years. China has said that the ban was there to protect the health of students, and restrictions on religious practices by government officials are were meant to ensure the state does not support any particular faith.

Uighurs have been present in Xinjiang for 4,000 years, and make up half the population.

The modern Uighur community is believed to be descended from groups present in the region for 4,000 years. Contact with Muslim merchants from the ninth century, with Islam becoming the region's dominant religion over the following centuries. Xinjiang province is situated at an ancient meeting point of religions and ethnicities, where the Silk Road enters China. The province borders eight neighbouring countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. According to the 2010 Chinese census, the current population of Xinjiang province stands at 21.8 million, with Uighurs making up approximately nearly half (10 million), and 8.7 million ethnic Han Chinese. Other ethnicities include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Tajiks.

Ethnically and culturally distinct from the Chinese majority, Xinjiang has always favoured a degree of autonomy. In 1933, Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence, creating the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan. However, in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party declared it a Chinese province and annexed the region. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an "autonomous region," known today as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.

This period also saw the pursuit of a resettlement policy in the region, which has with its vast mineral and oil deposits, particularly from the Han Chinese community. In 1941, Han Chinese made up five per cent of the region's population, while Uighurs made up 80 per cent; by 2000, this had risen to 41 per cent and 45 per cent respectively.

The situation of the Uighurs does not lend itself to simple answers. Although government responses in China and Thailand have provoked international criticism from human rights groups and western governments, there are undoubtedly links to extremism in Xinjiang province. The effects of this have reached conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and as far away as Syria and Iraq.

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