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China targets terror in Muslim region, but what is it fighting? - Casa Grande Valley Newspaper, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    China targets terror in Muslim region, but what is it fighting? By TED ANTHONY, Associated Press Writer February 17, 2004 HOTAN, China - Down the cramped
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 18, 2004
      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
      language Turkic.
      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
      Beijing's rule?

      "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
      unites them."

      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
      western edge.

      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
      to talk.

      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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