China targets terror in Muslim region, but what is it fighting? - Casa Grande Valley Newspaper, USA
- China targets terror in Muslim region, but what is it
By TED ANTHONY, Associated Press Writer February 17,
HOTAN, China - Down the cramped alleys of Hotan's main
bazaar, flat discs of bread roast in cone-shaped coal
ovens. Bearded men in embroidered skullcaps hawk
melons and aromatic cumin from donkey carts. On dusty
walls of mud and brick, the script is Arabic and the
This is China, though you wouldn't know it by looking.
And to the communist government, 2,300 miles east in
Beijing, that's precisely the problem.
In Xinjiang, the Muslim region that makes up an
Alaska-sized swath of China's far west, the central
government says it is fighting terrorism. But in a
region divided from the rest of the land by language
and religion, philosophy and tradition, it's hard to
tell exactly who the enemy is.
Is it what the government calls "separatists" - those
Turkic members of the Uighur ethnicity who advocate,
sometimes violently, the creation of a country called
East Turkistan? Is it Islamic extremists backed by
global terrorist networks? Have they joined forces?
Or, as some activists say, is it all simply an excuse
to come down harshly on people who won't bend to
"Anti-government activity and religious extremists and
terrorists, they are all the same in nature," says
Zong Jian, deputy Communist Party secretary in
Kashgar, a city near the Afghan and Pakistani borders.
"They incite people to be involved in violence. That
The accusations are vague, and the evidence presented
is scant. Local, Beijing-backed leaders tell stories
of Uighur separatists who worked with neighboring
Afghanistan's Taliban to sow unrest in Xinjiang, of
al-Qaida involvement in training camps inside China.
This much is indisputable: The Chinese government
fears any whiff of rebellion at the edges of its
control, be it by Dalai Lama followers in Tibet or the
leaders of Taiwan, recently accused by Beijing of
waging a "holy war" against it.
In Xinjiang, which borders both Pakistan and
Afghanistan and whose 11 million Muslims are the
region's majority, things have been simmering for
years. But the problem took on particular urgency
after the Sept. 11 attacks.
That day changed China's approach in two ways: It made
Beijing more wary of Islamic extremism, and it gave
the government - long criticized for its human rights
practices - a globally endorsed excuse to crack down.
"A lot of people sort of feel that they are using the
threat of terrorism to strengthen their control of the
region," Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the
University of Hawaii, said in December.
Today, government-run provincial television airs
programs chronicling al-Qaida's evils and
characterizing the Chinese-Uighur relationship as
close. And Beijing is trying to broaden ties with
Central Asian nations to reduce terrorism at its
In October, a Uighur named Ujimamadi Abbas was
executed in Hotan after being convicted of "ethnic
separatism." No details of his alleged offenses were
given. In December, Hasan Mahsum, one of the country's
most wanted men, the leader of the outlawed East
Turkestan Islamic Movement, was killed in a shootout
with Pakistan authorities.
A week earlier, Mahsum's name was among 11 "Muslim
separatists" on a list released by China in a plea for
foreign help against Xinjiang's "terrorist
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement was identified by
the United States as a terrorist organization in 2002
- a classification many believe was a diplomatic bone
thrown to Beijing in exchange for its tacit support of
the American-led war on terror.
"China thinks Uighur separatism is two kinds - Islamic
extremism and political separatism. But since 9-11,
they've put them together and said they're the same,"
says Dilxat Raxit, a Stockholm-based spokesman for the
East Turkistan Information Center.
"Uighurs love their country - because that country is
East Turkistan," says Raxit (pronounced "Rasheed").
"The Beijing government knows that. But they demand
that their nationalism is directed toward China."
This dual identity of Xinjiang is the partial result
of a deliberate attempt, through decades of encouraged
migration of ethnic Hans from back east, to make the
region more Chinese. It's not easy.
Xinjiang not only seems far from the rest of China; it
is. Even the official time zone set by Beijing is
ignored; many follow their own informal clock that
runs two hours earlier. And ancient linguistic ties
link the Uighurs to Turkmenistan, three countries
away, and even to Turkey, on Europe's doorstep.
Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, resembles most Chinese
cities evolving from uninspired communist architecture
into profit-making shininess. But drive south on the
rutted desert roads and the landscape changes
dramatically. Mud-hut villages and the serpentine old
parts of towns like Hotan and Kashgar resemble Kabul
more than they do Beijing or Shanghai.
In Hotan, where authorities say separatism is rampant
even after a 1999 crackdown, there is little visible
police presence. This, whispers one Muslim man, is
because of spies - Uighurs who work closely with the
government to monitor neighbors and report dissidence.
His account is difficult to verify. Most Uighurs speak
halting Chinese, if any, and in several cities those
asked about unrest melted into the masses, unwilling
Hotan is also home to a curious anti-terrorism exhibit
in the local Communist Party's walled compound.
In a small dusty room, grenades, guns and bomb
equipment sit under glass near videotapes and violent
photos - a naked mutilated female body, a decapitated
head, a slit throat. Christmas lights ring the room.
"These people are a terrorist force that has close
relations with international terrorism," says Pamir
Abdul-Rahman, a party official. "They were trained in
foreign training camps and sent back to be terrorists
here. Its leader is following orders from Osama bin
There is little evidence of this, and Abdul-Rahman
acknowledges as much, saying authorities are "not
clear on" the relationship between religion and
extremism. They emphasize, though, that while the
Chinese government is officially atheist, Islam is
protected - in theory, at least.
"It's easy to get confused here. We have no problem
with Islamic devotion. It is when people use that to
instigate activities that we become concerned," says
Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party secretary.
Talking to visiting reporters recently, he insisted
that Xinjiang insurgents had training camps in
At the magnificent, green-trimmed Idqar Mosque in
Kashgar, men file in by the hundreds each afternoon,
walking through a vast plaza that has been leveled for
Chants begin. Stooped graybeards lay down bags,
baskets of bread, cartloads of apples. They kneel and,
ignoring the occasional cell phone ring, they pray.
This pastiche distills what worries China's central
government most: big beliefs that transcend party and
nation, motivations they can't control or mold. It's
particularly true in a city like Kashgar, as near to
Mecca as it is to Beijing.
The mosque's government-backed imam, Mohammed Amin,
paints a picture of a society that is overcoming its
differences - celebrating them, even.
"Nationalism and religious feeling are not
incompatible," says Amin, cross-legged on a prayer
He goes on, in words that echo those of the leadership
that endorses him: "There were terrorists here. Now,
if there are any, they are very few. We don't have all
these problems. Islam doesn't mean terrorism, and it
doesn't mean terrorism here."
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