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The ISIS is now an international brand that can be spent anywhere a Muslim community is discriminated and persecuted. This is the case also for the Uighurs in China. The predominantly Islamic minority, speaking a Turkic language, is concentrated in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, where they represent about 45% of the population. Over the years, their peculiar identity has fueled calls for independence which the Chinese have harshly repressed. In 2009, ethnic clashes between the Uighurs and the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China, resulted in over 200 deaths and 1.800 people being wounded. Since then, the Chinese have stepped up the restrictions and tried to curb the influence of the Uighurs in their region.

Just like in Tibet, authorities in Beijing resorted to demographics, transferring Hans in the lands once inhabited by the Uighurs. If the Han represented a mere 6% of the population in 1949, they are now over 55%. Although there is no recent census – the Chinese are not willing to disclose the data – the Uighurs are 9 million people in a country of over 1.4 billion inhabitants. Does this mean they should not be viewed as a considerable threat to the Chinese social order? Probably, had Beijing integrated this minority and respected its cultural identity. But this did not happen.

And this is where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi stepped in, offering his support to the persecuted muslim minority. The Xinjiang region sits at the crossroads with other predominantly former USSR muslim countries, such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kirghizistan and not far from Afghanistan. These are all areas where radical Islam and ISIS are already present. The Chinese approach only fuels Uighurs’ radicalism and pushes them towards extremist views.

Over one hundred Uighur volunteers joined ISIS and were placed in combat units alongside fellow fighters from the region. Regardless of what will be of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there is now a synergy between radical Islamic groups operating in the area and those in Xinjiang. For instance, Uighurs are being hosted in areas controlled by the Talibans in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately it was China’s behavior that favored the association between the Uighur struggle and the Islamic State. In March 2017, a propaganda video from ISIS threatened Beijing for its oppression of the Islamic minority. An Uighur separatist group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, seems to have joined Al Qaeda. With both terrorist conglomerates willing to support the cause, it is likely they will join forces. Both al Baghdadi and al Zawahiri have cited China as one of their “enemies”.

The external support to the Uighurs is only part of the problem for Beijing. There are 22 million Muslims in China and radical groups could infect other parts of the country. At the same time, Xinjiang is rich in oil and uranium. The exploitation of natural resources requires social peace, currently lacking in the area. The region is also crucial for trade flows from north to south Asia and from east to west.

In order to assess the potential threat posed by the Uighurs one should not forget the diaspora abroad, present in several muslim countries and especially in Turkey. It was the diaspora that financed the separatist groups in the past.

chinese in urumqi
Chinese security in a market in Urumqi

Chinese repression

No freedom of speech, religion or movement. The Uighurs cannot obtain a passport and go abroad, let alone travel in groups in China without being exposed to continuous harassment or risk being imprisoned.

China forbids Ramadan celebrations and other Islamic festivals and opposes fasting during the holy month. Only people older than 60 are allowed to go to pilgrimage to the Mecca along with Chinese security officials that monitor their every move and after a lengthy indoctrination. Furthermore, studying the Koran and Arabic is forbidden, Islamic names are not allowed and women cannot wear veils or dress in black (the color is considered to be “subversive”) or wear tunics that fall below their knees. And if men cannot grow a beard, children are barred from mosques and women have to undergo restrictions on the number of children they can have.

The Chinese go as far as freezing the assets of potential dissidents and do not allow more than one knife per household. Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, is under constant surveillance and tip offs on fellow citizens are encouraged. Indiscriminate arrests are common, as are claims about torture. After all, any sign of religious affiliation is considered subversive.

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

Beijing’s mistakes

China’s policy of denying the identity of the Uighurs and the repression that followed has created the fertile breeding ground for terrorism. The Chinese started treating the Uighurs as terrorists at a time when there were none, pushing many to indeed walk down that path. Marginalized and oppressed by authorities, the Uighurs have embraced a separatist agenda without necessarily resorting to terrorism.

However, Chinese propaganda in the West has spread the equation that all Uighurs are potential terrorists. While this has had an effect on international support, it has also led to 22 Uighurs being incarcerated in Guantanamo for years and to the black listing of four Uighur groups by the US. Washington granted the Chinese wishes to obtain their support for the war in Afghanistan.

Beijing is now exercising pressure on muslim-majority countries in Asia and especially on Turkey to prevent the Uighurs from obtaining support from abroad. This could mean that the fight against the Chinese government could take place elsewhere. While security can be granted at home, the ISIS and Al Qaeda could strike against Chinese interests elsewhere. During a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, Chinese president Xi Jinping has quoted three “evils” to fight: separatism, terrorism and extremism. They all fit the Uighurs.

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