Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 5

Beijing often downplays the size of its Xinjiang problem for fear of exposing the difficulties it faces containing the “cancer of terrorism.” Since September 11, 2001, Beijing has been forced to reverse this policy due to repeated terrorist attacks. The most recent of these took place on February 25, 2003, when two bombs ripped through two of Beijing’s most prestigious universities. The blasts shattered Beijing’s long-held claim that it has been winning its war on terror.

This double bombing is similar to the September 11 al Qaeda plane attacks. By targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as symbols of America’s economic supremacy and military might, the al Qaeda attack was a loud declaration intended to identify the enemy against whom it has pledged to wage war.

The Chinese government would eventually be forced to admit that it suspects the Xinjiang militant Islamist Uighurs are behind the Beijing bomb attacks. They employed a similarly clever use of symbols: Tsinghua University (China’s own MIT), where the first bomb went off, is the alma mater of both Premier Zhu Rongji and Communist Party Chief Hu Jintao. And Beijing University (China’s version of Harvard) is where future leaders of PRC are trained, and where some of the country’s finest minds are based. This choice of targets by the Uighurs is no coincidence: it highlights, in true bin Ladenian fashion, that Beijing is the enemy against whom the militants are carrying the banner of Jihad. Although his televised statements have made no mention of the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang as a justification for war against the West [1], bin Laden did list Uighur Muslims among the many nationalities that fill al Qaeda’s ranks. Recent reports also indicate that a number of Uighur Mujahadeen are being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps. [2]

Comprised mostly of Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School of jurisprudence, Uighurs fall into two groups. The southern and more conservative group is originally from the Kashgar and Yarkand areas of Xinjiang. The northern group, the Taranchis, is originally from Xinjiang’s Ili valley. Both regions have been the source of repeated uprisings against the Chinese annexation of Xinjiang, but the southern area remains the main source of violence and unrest. [3] This is in part a consequence of the southern Altishahr region’s proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan (where bin Laden has allegedly gone into hiding) on the one hand, and the role of Central Asian Muslims in strengthening Uighur nationalism politically on the other.

These links to Central Asian Islam have historical roots. In traditional Xinjiang, authority rested on connections to various Sufi orders, the Naqshbandiyyah and the Qadiriyyah being the most prominent. In addition, Uighur Islamist militancy, in both ideological and operational terms, is influenced by the experiences of Islamists in Central Asia and by veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. Islam continues to play a most significant political role as the essence of national Uighur culture. Like Muslims of the former Soviet Union, the Uighurs’ ideological and religious commitment to their cause has not been eliminated by decades of communist oppression. The Uighur Jihad is likely to be inflamed further by Beijing’s increasing efforts to suppress it.

This “Chinese Jihad” does not differ much in origins and notions from that being waged by Islamists in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Its underlying rationale pivots on Beijing’s failure to protect Muslim religious freedoms. To comprehend the rationale for such a struggle, one should avoid disaggregating the religious, cultural, historical, and ethnic factors that have shaped the Uighur sense of identity, in particular since the Chinese Communist Party rose to power in 1949. The situation is not unlike what occurred in Central Asia, where Soviet repression sent religion underground and into the hands of fanatic mullahs and Sufi orders, a development that contributed to the radicalization of the way in which Islam was interpreted. Jihad, as it is reflected in current militant Uighur activities, is based on one such radical interpretation. A territory where a Muslim community lives but is not permitted to freely practice Islam can be defined as Dar-al-Harb [abode of war], where Muslims are justified in rising up against the oppressor. From a Uighur standpoint, Beijing’s oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang earned the region the status of Dar-al-Harb, thus necessitating the declaration of Jihad. The objective of the jihad is the establishment of an Islamic polity. That implies an ongoing Uighur uprising with strong nationalist characteristics.

In addition to the historical, nationalist and religious factors that have helped to shape the Jihad of the Uighurs, their exposure to strong trends of Islamist and Jihadist notions has also fed their growing ability to sustain the armed confrontation with Beijing. Interaction with the Afghan Mujahadeen, the Taliban, the Arab Afghans, and Pakistan’s Jama’at-i-Islami, during and after the anti-Soviet defensive, also contributed to this ability. Beijing’s role in providing logistical support to the Mujahadeen in the 1980s may have been difficult to document, but China’s relaxation of border controls so as to facilitate cross-border movement of Muslim fighters from both sides of the border during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cannot be denied. Besides, the independence of Muslim territories in Central Asia, with which Xinjiang continued to have cultural, ethnic and religious ties, has inspired Xinjiang’s Muslims in their bid for secession from China. The shocking success of al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States must have been the strongest inspiration yet to Uighurs who also witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Mujahadeen.

Beijing has sought so far to deal with the Xinjiang problem by persistently applying a strike-hard policy. Contrary to Sun Zu’s instruction in the Art of War, in which he suggests that closing the net on an enemy will leave him no option but fighting to death, Beijing has left the Uighurs no option but to engage in an escalating campaign of terrorism. And although many Uighurs have left the country to escape the lack of political and religious freedoms, their exit has led precisely to what China has always wanted to avoid–the internationalization of the Beijing-Uighur war. Part of this process of internationalization is an increasing use of the Internet. Indeed, a growing number of websites dedicated to explaining the Uighur side of the ongoing conflict are proving a challenge to the strict measures imposed by Beijing on private and Internet Café-users in China. Another challenge to Beijing is the much easier access that departing Uighurs now have to emigre communities abroad, many of which are in a position to sponsor insurgent activities.

Unless Beijing is willing to consider the option of granting Xinjiang more control over its own resources and governance–that is, greater control than is contained in the questionable autonomous status that Xinjiang is said currently to enjoy–it faces the risk of turning millions of Uighurs into suicide-bombers like those linked to Hamas. And this would only open a more direct link to some of the most extreme forms of religious fanaticism, like that promoted by the Taliban and, indeed, by al Qaeda. Like them, the Uighurs would become, to an even greater degree than they are now, a religiously motivated and violent group whose aims would extend far beyond the independence of Xinjiang. By failing to alter its policy of repression, Beijing is helping pave the way to a new Uighur Jihad and to the possible creation of its own Osama bin Laden.

On the other hand, steps by Beijing to lessen this repression might help drain the sources of Uighur resentment. And this might lead, in time, to a much calmer situation in Xinjiang and to an easing of the problem of terrorism from which China continues to suffer. Should China not consider this option, the danger would likely be a continuing cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism, one that might create a snowball effect from which both parties would suffer. Moreover, in a globalized world parallel effects are likely to be felt elsewhere, just as they were felt in Tunisia, Indonesia, the UK and Yemen after al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks. The Uighur Jihad in Xinjiang may not yet threaten the regime in China, but given the Uighurs’ demonstrated determination to keep up the fight, it may not be all that long before the repercussions of a Uighur Jihad create headlines like those created by al Qaeda.

1. The author has been able to verify this fact by a close and thorough scrutiny of all recorded statements given by bin Laden to the televised media, including his extensive and ‘exclusive’ interviews with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV Station. See also, Dru C. Gladney, “China’s Uighur Dilemma,” in Project Syndicate, January 2002 at <http://www.ipcs.org/index.htm>.

2. Pun, Pamela, “Separatists Trained in Afghanistan, says Official,” The Standard, 22 October 2002, at < http://www.thestandard.com.hk/>.

3. Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslims of the Soviet Empire–A Guide (London: Hurst, 1985).

Ahmad Lutfi is a researcher at the Middle East Program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, and a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where he specializes in state-civil society relations. The author’s background and his life in the Middle East and China provide the basis for his research interests, which span international relations, human rights, Middle East politics, political Islamism, and terrorism.