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xinjiang-watermelon

China's Muslim West

Harboring National Ambitions or International Terrorists?

October 15, 2001


HOTAN, China -- This dusty desert oasis is home to cotton fields, ancient Buddhist ruins, exquisite handmade carpets and villages full of farmers who still bring their goods to town by donkey cart.

It may also harbor terrorists, according to Beijing.

Hotan, near China's border with Kashmir, is among the most conservative Islamic areas in China's restive west. The region stirs fears among the Communist authorities that religion and separatism are colluding to create a violent independence movement with international backing.

A government crackdown has been ongoing throughout the western, predominately Muslim, province of Xinjiang, but with the current global fight against terrorism, China is now asking the world for its support in battling violent advocates for an independent "East Turkestan."

"We believe that our fight against the East Turkestan terrorists is also part and parcel of the international effort to combat terrorists," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said last week. "We hope that efforts to fight against East Turkestan terrorist forces should become a part of the international efforts and should also win support and understanding."

Yet the Muslim Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gur), who account for more than 85 percent of Hotan's population and are ethnically and linguistically closer to Central Asians than to Chinese, say their main goal is religious freedom, not independence.

"If they respect our religious customs, there won't be any problems," a Uighur taxi driver said.

The issue of China's Muslims presents the U.S. government with a diplomatic challenge as it seeks to hold and build its international coalition on the war against terrorism. Where do ambitions for freedom of religion or national identity end and terrorism begin?

Washington has pressed China on its treatment of ethnic minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, as a human-rights issue. Western governments have not been particularly alarmed by China's claim of evidence linking Uighur militants with overseas terrorist groups.

Amnesty International said it was concerned Beijing was using the Sept. 11 attacks "to justify their harsh repression of Muslim ethnic groups in (Xinjiang) which they accuse of being 'separatists,' 'terrorists' or 'religious extremists."'

"The Chinese authorities do not distinguish between 'terrorism' and 'separatism,"' Amnesty International said. "Separatism in fact covers a broad range of activities most of which amount to no more than peaceful opposition or dissent."

Since Sept. 11, Beijing has closed its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and restricted travel to China by people from the Middle East. While it has supported Washington's campaign against terrorism, Sun said there should be "no double standards."

In Hotan, residents have become even more nervous. Convoys of military trucks loaded with artillery periodically rumble through downtown. Factories, government offices and other workplaces have held meetings saying suspicious people should be reported.

Uighurs interviewed in Hotan refused to give their names.

"Please don't ask me any more questions," one Uighur man said. "I'm afraid. I don't want to be locked away for 10 years. There are already hundreds of people in jail."

A general crackdown has already been under way in Xinjiang, with a population of more than 15 million. The state-run China News Service reported last week that police in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, had arrested 210 people for terrorism, separatism and religious extremism this year. An anti-crime campaign launched nationwide earlier this year will be re-targeted in Xinjiang at "terrorists."

Xinjiang has experienced sporadic violent incidents over the years, including bombings and assassinations. Yet it is hardly a dangerous place, with border trade, economic investment and Silk Road tourism all thriving.

Hotan (also known by its Chinese name, Hetian), situated along the southern Silk Road at the edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert, borders Tibet and the disputed region of Kashmir. But unlike Kashgar and Urumqi, it has not benefited from border trade with Pakistan and the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Much of the countryside is still without electricity.

Religion is government-controlled in China. Muslim imams and clerics must be state-approved, as are Buddhist lamas and Catholic priests.

Xinjiang has experienced an Islamic revitalization in recent years, spurred partly by China's economic reforms, said Jay Dautcher, a Uighur expert and professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"While the rest of China was saying, let's get really rich, the Uighurs were saying, we're not rich," Dautcher said. "There was an overall recognition that, as a people, we're not going to succeed unless we become more moral. There was a general trend towards not drinking, wanting to say we should pray more regularly, we should be more upright morally. These kinds of ideas were really mobilizing people."

An estimated 70 percent of Uighurs in Hotan pray five times a day, locals say. Some of them said they only started doing so a few years ago, about the same time that Wahhabism, an orthodox school of Islam in favor of establishing Islamic law, started gaining popularity here. Wahhabis, founders of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism, originated in Saudi Arabia.

Uighurs say some expressions of religious belief, such as growing a beard for men or wearing a headscarf for women, are severely discouraged by the government. Women are not allowed to be fully veiled.

"It's not banned, but let's just say the Communist Party feels better if you don't have a beard," a Uighur said.

A report by the Hotan Prefectural Party Committee's propaganda department last year said "all levels of party organizations in Hetian Prefecture have regarded ideological education as the key link in combating separatism."

Officials hold hundreds of meetings, show films, organize anti-separatists exhibits and conduct mass arrest and sentencing rallies, where criminals are paraded before crowds before being prosecuted or executed. Even in the countryside, where most people live, loudspeakers have been installed in more than 90 percent of villages.

The report said the party "pays attention to exercising strict management over religious affairs according to law."

Until several years ago, locals estimated 98 percent of families sent their children to underground Islamic schools, where they learned to read the Koran in Arabic. Since the crackdown, anyone caught holding classes for children is put in jail. Informants are paid by police to report on teachers. Only one government-operated school is still running.

"They have it so they can keep an eye on us," one Uighur said.

Experts say tensions in Xinjiang have as much to do with ethnic resentment as religious repression. Resentment runs both ways.

Han Chinese, the principal ethnic group in China, say the government is overly generous toward minorities, who are allowed to have more children and benefit from an affirmative-action policy that makes it easier for them to get into college and find jobs.

Uighurs say government officials are almost exclusively Han. They also resent Han migration to Xinjiang, where the Uighur population has dropped from more than 90 percent before 1949 to just 46 percent now.

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