Using Terrorism to Justify Repression

The U.S. War on Terror has inspired far-reaching and unexpected consequences. Rebiya Kadeer will speak at MIT tonight on how the Uyghur Muslim minority in western China has endured one such consequence: the Chinese have adopted our rhetoric, equating Islam with violent separatism and global terrorism.

Crossing into Kadeer's home province of Xinjiang in arid northwest China feels more like stepping across a national border than a provincial one. Pagodas give way to minarets, lamb kebab becomes the staple meal, and people who look more Pakistani than Chinese crowd into bazaars selling melons, rugs, yogurt, everything. The women's headdress, the ubiquitous Arabic script, and the constant chatter of a language that sounds nothing like Chinese make it easy to forget you are in China.

This rich culture is threatened by the policies of a Chinese government obsessed with cementing its control of the region, which has historically expressed separatist tendencies. In attacking the perceived roots of separatism in Uyghur religion, the government has inflicted severe damage on the cultural identity of the indigenous Turkic population, known as the Uyghurs (pronounced "wee-gers"). For example, official incentives for migration have led to an influx of Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in the country) into the region; as a result, the Uyghur population in Xinjiang now comprises only 45 percent of the total population, down from 95 percent in 1945. China's oppression of Uyghur identity is dangerous to both the Uyghurs and Chinese state, building a legacy of animosity that will not disappear.

Fearing separatism, the Chinese government has instituted policies that dramatically fail to discriminate peaceful religious practice from violent political activity. These policies not only repress any hint of political dissent, but are disturbingly unique in their systematic targeting of any brand of Islam that does not, according to a government document "uphold the Marxist point of view of religion, and use the yardstick of the Party's."

Repressive policies target Uyghur Islam, but through the inextricable link between culture and religious tradition, affect social, academic, and professional life as well. By law, any Uyghur congregation must register with the authorities, be it a religious study group or community soccer league. Registration is a no-win situation: Chinese authorities can prosecute unregistered groups for violating the law, but, given that fifty percent of Uyghur detainees in 2001 were detained for belonging to "illegal organizations," many Uyghurs refuse to register for fear of being blacklisted.

Local Uyghur religious leaders are required to attend political reeducation campaigns, during which "attitudes" are assessed and recorded in permanent files. The consequences of nonconformity can be devastating; mosques may be targeted for "rectification," imams may lose accreditation, or individuals may be imprisoned for "illegal religious activity."

Any expression, oral or literary, that hints at dissent is punished. Undercover academics and investigators have had trouble documenting the repression simply because Uyghurs are too afraid to talk. In 2005, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was sentenced to ten years in prison for writing an allegory about a blue pigeon. Kadeer herself was imprisoned for sending newspaper clippings to her husband in the United States.

The government, in an attempt to mute religious ideology in the young, has instituted restrictions against Uyghur minors. Children may be forbidden to enter mosques, while basic expressions of the Islamic faith are forbidden in schools, from which children can be expelled for praying and fasting.

Though the Chinese government reported anti-state violence in Xinjiang prior to 9/11, it has used the momentum of the global war on terror to indiscriminately label all unacceptable political or religious activity as international terror. Local authorities have traditionally insisted that violence and terrorism are practically absent from the region. By October 2001, however, they were decrying a sweeping terrorist movement in Xinjiang and that the "East Turkestan terrorist forces" constituted China's local front in the War on Terror.

Claims that any violent Uyghur groups have connections to Al-Qaeda have been highly publicized by the Chinese, but lack substantial evidence and are considered highly questionable amongst China experts. To warm relations with UN veto-holding China prior to the Iraq invasion, the U.S. added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to its blacklist of terrorist groups in 2002. U.S. officials have since expressed regret and concern that China has used ETIM's inclusion as a rhetorical blanket to justify repression of peaceful protest and religious practice.

The Chinese government is justified in approaching state security and potential separatist threats with high concern. These are priorities for any regime. In fact many Uyghurs, like Kadeer, speak out for a peaceful resolution to coexistence within China's borders. and, at very least, a respect for basic human rights and religious expression. But by continuing to institute repressive policies and alienate Uyghur intellectuals and leaders, the Chinese are fomenting discontent and may plant the seeds for future revolt; the divide between radical and alienated citizen will increasingly blur. If the government does nothing to relieve Uyghur repression, the region, exhausting hope and peaceful solutions, may turn to the violence that the current repressive policies are ostensibly targeting.

Kadeer's visit provides an opportunity for the MIT community to learn more. Simply becoming more educated would be a step forward — as Americans we should understand the consequences of our broad rhetorical campaign on terrorism and contribute to fixing the problems it has caused.