In its first-ever direct threat against China, the Islamic State’s Uighur fighters have vowed to return home to Xinjiang, a province in western China, to launch jihad against China. The Uighur extremists, in a video, have vowed to ‘shed blood like rivers’ against the Chinese State.
The Islamic State (IS) is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). For the sake of simplicity, I have used the name ‘Islamic State’ in this explanatory article.
The Uighurs in China accuse the Chinese government of suppressing their voices and unleashing repression against them.
So, who are the Uighurs?
The Turkic Uighurs are a predominantly Islamic community with deep racial and ethnic ties to Central Asia. For centuries, the Uighurs have co-existed with about 12 other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
Till about 1912, Xinjiang was a part of the Qing Empire. After the demise of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the status of Xinjiang has swayed between autonomy and complete independence. In 1933, Turkic insurgents broke free from Chinese control and established the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First East Turkistan Republic).
The following year, China reabsorbed the region. In 1944, emboldened by the support of the Soviet Union, Turkic Uighur rebels once again declared independence to set up the Second East Turkistan Republic.
However, the Turkic Uighurs’ dream of an independent state was short-lived. In 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power after establishing full control over the whole of China and creating the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The same year, the Communists regained complete control of Xinjiang while in 1955, Beijing classified Xinjiang, which accounts for about 16 per cent of the country’s area, as an ‘autonomous region’ of the People’s Republic of China.
Today, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is home to about 2.3 crore people from thirteen major ethnic groups, the largest being the Turkic Uighur community.
Nostalgic of the times when there was an independent Xinjiang, some Uighurs see China’s presence in the province as a form of imperialism. The more radical among these, like those belonging to the extremist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have called for secession from China.
Practice of Islam in Xinjiang
The practice of religion in a Communist State is either undercover, if such practice is illegal, or controlled by the State, if such practice is allowed. China practices the latter method; it tightly controls the citizens’ right to practice faith.
In Xinjiang, China keeps a hawk’s eye on the mosques that dot the landscape of the massive province. The secret services, Beijing’s eyes and ears, are always on the prowl looking for secessionist and terror elements. Often, such is the control that Beijing extends over the mosques that whenever there is violence, they are asked to close down for an indefinite period.
In 2014, the Chinese government banned Muslim staff from observing fasting and engaging in other religious activities in the Muslim holy month of Ramzan (also Ramadan).
The practice of one’s faith is a matter of personal choice, at least for folks like us in India; in China, it is a matter of State policy.
The second and concluding part of this article will appear tomorrow.