Muslims in China: Jihad and Gentle Resistance in the Wild West

By Andreas Lorenz

Beijing has governed the giant Uighur province of Xinjiang for more than five decades. China's Communist Party anticipates more attacks by Uighur separatists during the Olympics -- as revenge for Beijing's harsh treatment of the Muslim minority group.

Yasin Karim, 38, wears a white cap and sports a jet-black goatee. He is the assistant imam of the mosque in Langar, a village 75 kilometers (47 miles) southeast of the Uighur provincial capital, Kashgar. Karim is a Uighur, a member of the ethnic group that is currently giving Beijing so much trouble.

Yasin is sitting on a carpet in the cozy inner courtyard of his house, talking about day-to-day religious life in his congregation. "We have not been allowed to teach our children the Koran since the 1990s," he says. And when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, he is not permitted to use a loudspeaker, but must rely on his voice instead. The will of the Communist Party is law, even in the smallest village.

A sign above the entrance gate to Yasin's mosque reads, in Arabic: "No admittance to anyone under 18 years of age." On the adjacent wall, a slogan painted in blue calls upon worshippers to obey the "correct religious policy of the Communist Party."

Before Yasin became an imam, the government office of religion made sure he was politically reliable and did not sympathize with "ethnic separatists." He's required to attend regular political education classes, evidence of the sort of patronizing behavior that makes relations so difficult between the 8.5 million Muslim Uighurs and the Chinese immigrants, who now make up close to half the population of the Xinjiang ("New Border") Autonomous Region.

This region, between the Taklamakan Desert and the Pamir Mountains, is second only to Tibet as a source of trouble for Beijing, especially now, with the government so intent on putting forward a cheerful, Olympic face. The Communist Party must expect that militant Uighurs could use the event to draw the world's attention to their situation and disturb the image of a harmonious China, in a place like the old oasis city of Kashgar, which is somewhat closer to Moscow than to Beijing, 3,400 kilometers (2,125 miles) away.

The sun rises two and and a half hours later in Kashgar than in the capital, but the clocks there are set to Beijing time, as they are throughout China. For several days now, red and yellow barricades have been set up in front of the barracks of the military People's Armed Police Force, across the street from the Uighur Hospital in Seaman Street. Behind the barricades, a large board studded with metal spikes, designed to destroy tires, has been placed on the ground.

There were no barriers here two weeks ago, when a fatal incident took place. Two men drove a small truck into the barracks, threw hand grenades and stabbed unarmed police officers as they were doing their morning exercises. Sixteen people were killed. A short time later, unknown assailants stabbed three guards at a roadblock outside the city.

The attackers were not intimidated by posters affixed to the walls of mud-brick buildings in the old section of Kashgar. They depict three men with red X marks drawn across their bodies, which identifies them as having been executed. The text on the poster explains, in Arabic, that the men had sought to "divide the fatherland" and wanted to establish an entity called "East Turkestan."

Xinjiang, the Uighur province.

Xinjiang, the Uighur province.

The old desire for self-determination inspired the men, just as it has inspired all Uighur freedom fighters. Beijing's communists have ruled Xinjiang since 1951 and are the omnipresent power in the region. Anyone who challenges them faces dire consequences.

Because of its immense natural resources (natural gas, oil, gold and coal), the border province of Xinjiang, four-and-a-half times the size of Germany, is of great interest to China. It has a population of about 20 million and serves as a buffer against Russia and the countries of Central Asia. Many Uighurs feel their lives have become more difficult and their relationship with the Han Chinese less easy in recent years.

"They control our economy, the real estate market, road construction, factories," says a Uighur businessman. "We are marginalized." The Uighurs are even more outraged that almost every attempt to win more autonomy and religious freedom, or even demand a debate over these issues, is interpreted as separatism.

'Within the Limits of Our Laws'

Who exactly was behind the most recent Uighur attacks, and how well organized or internationally connected they were, remains unclear. No one knows whether they truly seek the establishment of an "East Turkestan" or, drawing on historic precedents, a "Sultanate of Kashgaria." Beijing assumes the attackers slipped across the border from Pakistan. The knife attacks suggest a low level of professionalism.

Still, it's clear the extremists have changed their tactics. In the past, their targets included city buses filled with civilians, like the one bombed in the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province on July 21. Now they are targeting soldiers, police officers and guards, that is, government employees. And, more recently, they also seem prepared to sacrifice their lives, like jihadists.

Access has been restricted to gas stations in Kashgar and the surrounding region because of these concerns. Anyone wishing to buy gasoline must first show ID, and only drivers may use the pumps. Police officers are posted along access roads, where they scan the passports of foreigners and record the information in their computers.

Meanwhile the narrow streets in the old city teem with life. Women wearing headscarves speed on scooters past creaking donkey carts. Bakers stack crisp pita bread, artisans hammer copper kettles and brass pitchers, butchers slice mutton on the street. As if there had been no attacks.

Olympic slogans ("One World, One Dream") are not so ubiquitous in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, broadcasts by the Beijing central TV network flicker across the screens of small sets at market stands and in shops. "We are proud of the games in China," says a sausage vendor wearing a Dopa, the traditional Uighur cap. But the grimace on his face reveals that the opposite is probably true. Three Uighur boxers are part of the Chinese Olympic team, although two of them were eliminated early in the competition.

Uighur children learn Chinese at an early age. Beijing's position is that speaking Chinese will be indispensable later on. But conservative Uighurs interpret it as yet another incursion into their culture . They react accordingly. More and more women conceal their faces behind brown wool scarves. Guo Weian, an official with the office of religion in Kashgar, repeating the party line, says: "They are simply imitating what they have seen on television from other Arab countries."

Guo, along with his colleague Amat, insists that the situation is stable in Xinjiang, and that residents enjoy religious freedom, "within the limits of our laws" -- naturally. According to Guo, this is borne out by the number of mosques in the region, 10,000, or almost 4,000 more than 30 years ago.

Guo, a Chinese, and Amat, a Uighur, share a dimly lit government office. Outside, their two ethnic groups live next to each other rather than together. "We live in the flat houses, and they live in the tall buildings," say the Uighurs. He means that many Han Chinese have been resettled in developments along Kashgar's outskirts that are indistinguishable from high-rise apartment complexes in Beijing or Nanjing. Some are even named, nostalgically, after faraway provinces.

Daily life in Kashgar doesn't seem so difficult that young men would naturally turn to violence as a desperate last resort. The radical Uighurs aren't popular in China, and they lack a leader and integrating figure. Their actions may be death-defying, but they remain an insurgency with a weak base and poor resources. They have no high technology, and probably no sophisticated command structures.

The only Uighur to have attracted international attention is Rebiya Kadeer, a women's rights advocate who lives in American exile. Even after six years of imprisonment in China, she advocates peaceful protest. Her fellow Uighurs at home are mainly peaceful, too. They may resent the Chinese, they submit to Beijing's authority.

Yasin Karim, the assistant imam in Langar, sees no value in opposing Beijing with illegal behavior or demands. For instance, he says, ambitions to establish an independent East Turkestan are unwise. "If we become independent, we will only get ourselves into trouble. Then it will be like Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya here."

So does Yasin sees the Uighurs' future in the People's Republic of China alone? "That," the devout man says diplomatically, "is for Allah to decide."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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