Xinjiang Riots Confound Islamists

By Sreeram Chaulia

Asia Times Online
July 27 2009
Hong Kong

Despite the outbreak of devastating violence affecting the Uyghur
Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, the Muslim world has
not shrieked unanimously or decisively in outrage. More Muslims in
far-flung parts of the planet protested the denial of democratic rights
in Iran in the last few days than the plight of their co-religionists
in Xinjiang.

Since the state crackdown after the street battles took hold in
Urumqi, Kashgar and other parts in Xinjiang, the protest banner has
been languishing in the hands of only a handful of ethnic

Uyghur citadels outside China. This is a far cry from millions
of angry fellow Muslims moved by solidarity for Uyghur activists
demanding self-determination from Chinese rule.

As an issue, Xinjiang has failed to whip up pan-Islamic fervor despite
the steady marginalization of the largely Sunni Muslim Uyghurs under
Chinese communist control.

Over the years, spleen vented at abuses or humiliation of Muslims
and their sacred symbols has been channeled into mass protests
from Morocco to Malaysia. The wave of disturbances following the
publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark
in 2005 shook virtually every place on Earth where Muslims resided in
sizeable numbers. Death threats, burning of effigies, arson against
public utilities, torching of embassies, bomb attacks and related
acts resulted at that time in the deaths of over 139 people. The
conflagration was so forceful that the media dubbed it the "Cartoon
intifada"- a dark pun on the Palestinian uprisings, which usually
set fire to the Muslim sensibility, irrespective of nationality.

Earlier in 2005, when Newsweek magazine alleged that some American
personnel manning the Guantanamo Bay prison had deliberately flushed
copies of the Koran down the toilet, it set off a furor in countries
as far apart as Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia. So infuriating was
the memory of this act that it inspired one of the Pakistani-origin
suicide bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, to bomb the London public transport
system in July 2005.

Come July 2009 and the Xinjiang violence, where is the inflamed
"Muslim street" and its rabble-rousing leaders? Officially, Turkey was
the only country which huffed that "genocide" was being committed by
China against the Uyghurs. But Ankara’s harsh language had more to do
with ethnic affinity for Uyghurs, who are racially Turkic in origin,
than with a general sympathy for "Muslim brothers and sisters".

Thousands of Uyghur immigrants live in Turkey and remind Turkish
nationalists of the dream of an independent "East Turkestan" (the
former name of Xinjiang). While most contemporary Turks have mixed
blood after mingling with Europeans and Arabs, the Uyghurs isolated
themselves from other ethnic groups and are admired by Turks as the
closest to their pure-bred ancestors. The survival of the Uyghurs,
who face demographic flooding in China, is associated with stirrings
of national identity in Turkey.

It is because of such emotional attachment to Uyghurs that the
Turkish Industry minister risked economic relations with Beijing
by urging a boycott of Chinese imported goods after violence flared
up in Urumqi. As many as 107 Turkish lawmakers from a China-Turkey
inter-parliamentary group resigned in disgust. Thousands of Turks
joined Uyghurs in Istanbul and other Turkish cities after Friday
prayers chanting "Murderer China" and "No to ethnic cleansing."

A Turkish delegation of five MPs, led by the chairman of the Committee
on Human Rights, Zafer Uskul, announced that they would travel
to Xinjiang to assess the situation on the ground. The very tag
"human rights" which these MPs carried raised antlers in Beijing,
which unceremoniously squelched the proposed trip without offering
a public explanation. More than 12 days since the Turkish delegation
expressed intent, it is still waiting for China’s permission.

Turkey’s angst over Xinjiang did not infect or enthuse other Muslim
countries, not even in its immediate neighborhood. Many observers
noted the irony that a state which many believe has yet to accept its
own genocide against Armenia during World War I is casting stones at
China with the slogan of genocide against Uyghurs.

The only non-Turkic Muslim country where some noise was drummed
up immediately after the Xinjiang mayhem was Indonesia. Islamic
organizations in Jakarta gathered before the Chinese embassy,
displaying flags and posters and criticizing Beijing’s treatment
of Uyghurs. They reiterated the pet project of "holy war" against
infidels. The timing of these demonstrations could be related to
Indonesia’s presidential elections, which were just around the corner
as flames broke out around Urumqi.

Apart from this, a shady Algerian outfit known as "al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb" issued a threat that it would target Chinese people
abroad in revenge for "the deaths of Muslims" in Xinjiang. Some
strategic consultants aver that "jihadists want to see action against
China" for its harsh policies towards Uyghurs, but much of this
remains in the realm of speculation.

A key Muslim country, Iran, which has a history of kicking up storms
over desecration of Islamic symbols (recall the Salman Rushdie affair)
and the sufferings of fellow Muslims (both Shi’ites and Sunnis), has
notably remained silent on Xinjiang. There appears to be a verbal pact
between Tehran and Beijing that they will not berate each other over
internal political challenges. Tehran’s absolute tight-lippedness on
the Uyghur question is likely to be payback for Beijing’s recognition
of President Mahmud Ahmadinjad’s controversial re-election in June.

The general realization that Iran needs China on its side at the UN
Security Council on each occasion when the former’s nuclear program
comes under the scanner seems to have also held back the fire-spewing
ayatollahs from denouncing the bloodshed in Xinjiang.

Why did Islamic establishments and publics let go of the Xinjiang
violence so lightly, with barely a murmur or two? The answer lies in
the complicated construction of enemies by Islamists. The "West", as a
category, has been blamed by radical Muslims as the bane which ruined
former Islamic political and cultural glory. So, when atrocities or
slights are seen to be committed against Islam and its adherents in
a European or North American country, they confirm the pre-existing
prejudices and hatreds nursed by the Muslim street and its instigators
in positions of power.

Sometimes, the "West" is also extended to include countries like
Russia, Israel and India – all of whom are viewed by Islamists and
their followers to be oppressing Muslims in their respective disputed
territories. But China’s image as a staunch rival of Western powers
and which does not intervene in the Middle East confuses hardline
Muslims, who place it in a nebulous mental space.

China does not fit neatly into the binary jihadist classification of
the world into dar-ul-Islam (a land where Islamic laws are followed
and the ruler is a Muslim) and dar-ul-Harb (a land ruled by infidels
and where Muslims suffer).

That China has so far escaped major jihadist attacks on its soil
or its overseas representations in spite of its harshness towards
Uyghurs is not a function of its superior counter-terrorism strategies
but rather of the label fixation among Islamists. The West, however
geographically and politically incongruous a concept, continues to
be the favorite dartboard for fiery Muslims.

It is a fixation that absorbs the Islamist heat and allows China a
free hand to deal severely with the Uyghurs.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal
Global Law School in Sonipat, India.