Beijing is using tactics drawn from Josef Stalin’s 1930s playbook in order to crush any form of dissent by the Uighurs, the country’s biggest Muslim ethnic minority, who live in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
On December 16 in a clash in a village near Kashgar, Xinjiang’s southern city and ancient capital, 14 attackers and two policemen were killed in a gun battle in which the Uighurs were said to be only armed with knives and axes. The Chinese government blamed extremist Islamist terrorists linked to al-Qaeda. The World Uighur Congress, a Munich-based advocacy group, said it was the police who opened fire on protesters, stating that, “the abusive use of force by authorities in the area has deprived the Uighurs of their right to live”.
Like so much else in an opaque central Asia there are always two unverifiable and completely different stories to any political event.
This attack follows numerous others on Chinese security forces in Xinjiang and the first-ever suicide attack in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 28 when a car loaded with petrol cans and driven by three Uighurs exploded after driving into an entrance into the Forbidden City. Five people were killed including the perpetrators and more than 40 injured. Following this incident there were large-scale arrests of Uighurs in Beijing and other cities.
The largest death toll to date was in July 2009, when at least 200 and possibly up to 400 people were killed in days of rioting and street battles between Uighurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang capital Urumqui.
Beijing accuses the fringe East Turkestan Islamic Movement of being behind the attacks. The Chinese say this Islamist group, that has bases in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan and also has close links to al-Qaeda, is involved in global jihad and wants to separate Xinjiang from China. However, historically the largely secular Uighurs, who practice a moderate form of Islam, have had nationalist movements for greater autonomy and even independence, rather than movements in support of Islamic extremism.
But there is little doubt that Pakistani extremist groups have encouraged Uighurs to train and fight with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, while other Uighurs have been closely involved in the drugs trade – smuggling heroin out of Afghanistan for the Chinese market. Privately China has come down hard on both Pakistan and Afghanistan to root out Uighur militants on their soil.
The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group who once ruled a vast empire in central Asia, are particularly bitter that ever since the 1950s Beijing has been moving millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang turning the Uighurs into a minority in their own homeland. The Han take the best jobs, housing and education facilities.
There has been widespread repression of Uighur and Islamic sentiments. The latest Chinese measure according to the Reuters news agency is a November announcement that Uighur college students will not graduate unless their political view are approved by the authorities, who admit that they are in “a life-and-death struggle” for people’s minds.
This is all incredibly similar to the brutal tactics that Stalin used in the 1930s in central Asia to try to crush people’s belief in Islam and prevent them performing traditional Muslim rites. Stalin clamped down hard on all religious practices and rites such as public prayers and fasting. Mosques were few and far between and the state-trained Ullema were considered by the public to be government stooges. Islam and its rituals went underground where they continued to flourish.
When I travelled in Soviet central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, Muslims celebrated Islamic weddings, funerals and circumcision ceremonies at midnight to avoid being harassed by the police. Senior Communist officials, who were born Muslims and were supposed to crack down on such ceremonies, often secretly took part in them for fear of losing contact with their family or clan.
So when perestroika or the openness policy of Mikhail Gorbachev was initiated, Islam quickly surfaced as a deeply popular religion despite 70 years of suppression. However, past resentments also welled up and led to the creation of central Asian Islamist extremist groups.
Many of these Stalinist measures, which so obviously failed in the Soviet Union, already exist in Xinjiang. Students are forbidden to fast during term time, prayer time is limited and public prayers are not encouraged. The old medieval Muslim parts of Kashgar are being bulldozed and replaced with concrete tower blocks. The old bazaar has virtually vanished. Therefore it is not surprising that religious-minded youth are finding their way in ever-increasing numbers to the Taliban camps to the south.
The lesson Stalinisation taught about trying to suppress religion is that it does not work. Today’s watered down version of Chinese Communism, with its heavy consumer bias, can certainly co-exist with religion. Islam only becomes a threat when Muslims are repressed and treated as third class citizens.
September 11 2001 awakened the world about the threat from religious extremism but also alerted us to the need for tolerance and understanding of all religions. Unfortunately in the land that possesses one of the world’s oldest civilisations, the mistreatment of religious belief grows.
The writer is the author of ‘The Resurgence of Central Asia’ and ‘Jihad, the rise of militant Islam in Central Asia’