At play in China: repression of Muslims or Islamic terrorism?

One side points to a series of brazen attacks attributed to Islamic extremists.

The other side complains of religious and ethnic persecution by government authorities.

Washington Post story last month highlighted worsening relations between Chinese leaders and Muslim Uighurs in that nation’s western Xinjiang region.

Key history from the Post:

For years, many Uighurs and other, smaller Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their protests are a reaction, Uighur groups say, to ­oppressive official policies, ­including religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.

The government has long denied oppressing Uighurs or any other ethnic group and has blamed terrorist acts on separatist Muslims who want to make Xinjiang an independent state.

In a report titled “Who are the Uighurs?” BBC News noted:

Activists say central government policies have gradually curtailed the Uighurs’ religious, commercial and cultural activities. Beijing is accused of intensifying a crackdown after street protests in Xinjiang in the 1990s, and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Over the past decade, many prominent Uighurs have been imprisoned or have sought asylum abroad after being accused of terrorism. Mass immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang had made Uighurs a minority in Xinjiang.

Beijing is accused of exaggerating the threat from Uighur separatists in order to justify repression in the region.

The above background helps understand the context of a front-page Wall Street Journal story today that features this provocative headline:

Web Preaches Jihad to Chinese Muslims

(Hint: If you hit a paywall when you click the story link, try Googling the exact words of the headline to get an “article free pass.”)

The top of the WSJ story:

URUMQI, China — The video posted online last month looks much like ones from Middle East jihadist groups. It shows what appears to be a man making a suitcase bomb and grainy footage of an explosion at a crowded train station here. The soundtrack plays an Arabic chant inciting holy war.

But the video isn’t meant to rally followers in Iraq or Syria. Its appeal is to China’s 10 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group from this northwestern region of Xinjiang, some of whom have resisted Chinese rule for decades.

The Internet has been a key propaganda tool for Mideast militants. Now, it appears to be helping spread the ideology and tactics of violent jihadism to this remote corner of the Muslim world, poorer parts of which came online only recently.

The video was posted after a knife-and-bomb attack at a train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital—one of a series of assaults in Chinese cities since October that have made unrest emanating from the region the biggest domestic-security issue for China’s leadership.

This thorough WSJ report — full of nuance and attention to religious details — explores the possibility that repression has resulted in radicalization:

The increasing religiosity of Uighur unrest implies a failure of Beijing’s efforts to control the Internet and religious activity in Xinjiang, a gas-and-oil-rich region of desert, high mountains and oasis towns bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It suggests that some young Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language, are becoming radicalized even as the imminent withdrawal of NATO-led troops from Afghanistan may help the spread of militant ideas from there and from Islamic extremists in Pakistan.

The 2,000-word story is both extremely fascinating and deeply troubling.

It’s definitely worth a read.

Image by Pete Niesen, via

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Julia B

    Thanks for bringing the WSJ article to our attention. It had a lot of meat and variety of opinions.

    “A foreign-ministry spokeswoman this month denied that Uighur unrest is linked to religious restrictions or other Chinese policies, saying that “China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression’”

    The paragraphs immediately following show that China is actively trying to stifle religious expression. I wonder what this spokeswoman means by “religious expression”.

    On the other hand, in the comments somebody who sounds like they know a bit of Chinese history says that China has loosened up on religions since the 1980s, so I guess it’s a relative matter.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for your comment, Julia.

      As for the comment you referenced, I live by the adage that nothing good ever comes of reading the comments on a general news website. :-)

    • Stephen

      Well, yes, it is true that the Chinese government has “loosened up” on religions since the 1980s. However, given the fact that during the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the Chinese government pursued a policy of trying to eliminate religion altogether, the “loosening up” has been rather relative. I returned to the US last summer after teaching at a Chinese university for seven years. During that time, one of my students was arrested (and presumably jailed) for belonging to the illegal (under Chinese law) Falun Gong religious group. The government-sanctioned international church that my family attended was required by the Chinese government to check worshippers’ passports before they entered the sanctuary, to prevent Chinese citizens from attending services. A Chinese church that my wife (who is Chinese) occasionally attended was once raided by the police on a Sunday when my wife did not attend. Yes, people are allowed to participate in some religious activities, but often under rather close government scrutiny. So, I would say that religious freedom in China is clearly a relative thing.

  • PalaceGuard

    Not being an subscriber to the WSJ, I was unable to read the article. Did the author, by any chance, show any understanding that this stand-off, in one form or another, under one government or another, has been ongoing for over a millenium? There is nothing new under the sun, and very rarely anything new in China.

    • Julia B

      I tried typing in the title of the article in Google, as advised, and it did work as a single article exception. Give it a try.
      I didn’t notice any coverage of the understanding you describe. It must be similar to the Russians wanting to control their bordering countries as buffers. (i.e. Ukrain) The Romans did that, so did the Byzantines and we certainly didn’t put up with Russians in Cuba. We need to think about our Monroe Doctrine – it’s an inevitable situation for powerful countries. The problem is how much control is thought to be needed.

  • jdmajd

    China tends to carry out Islam extermination on the reverse side.