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 Shutterstock.com

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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.


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