The Battle of Talas in 751 is regarded as a historical aberration. A lone point of contact between two worlds that, from a Western perspective, are irrevocably distinct. The battle between the Muslim Arab armies of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Tang Dynasty halted the expansion of both empires. Today, for the vast majority of people, the Middle and Far East are two independent spheres, with Islam only prominent, indeed synonymous, with one.
Yet 1.8% of Chinese are Muslim. This is an admittedly small percentage, yet, by virtue of China’s large population, accounts for over 23 million people. There are more Muslims living in China than there are living in Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Lebanon, Qatar and Libya – combined. Moreover, within this Muslim population, there are a number of ethnic divisions that have repeatedly threatened to spark conflict within the People’s Republic. China officially recognises 56 ‘nationalities’ within its country, though over 91% of the population form the Han majority. The Hui, largest of 10 ethnic groups within Chinese Muslims, largely live within the Han community. Demographically and culturally the Hui are closer to the Han than any other Muslim group and are largely allowed to practice Islam without interference. Indeed it is their overall similarity to the Han that allows the Hui to be the only officially recognised nationality group “for which religion… is the sole unifying criterion of identity”.
Hui Muslims are therefore afforded greater religious freedom than any other Muslim group, especially Turkic Muslims like the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are the second largest group within China’s Muslim population and live largely in the Xinjiang autonomous district, in the northwest of the country. Unlike the Hui, the Uyghur hold little desire to assimilate into the Han majority. Economic development in Xinjiang, alongside state-sponsored migration, has led to the once Uyghur-dominated region to now comprise of 40% Han and 5% Hui. The young and technically educated migrants naturally acquired the best jobs, leading to further resentment from the Uyghurs. This economic tension is compounded by long-standing Uyghur struggles for self-rule and ongoing religious oppression. Officials have long suppressed Islamic practice in Xinjiang, preventing the building of mosques and the teaching of Islam to children.
This resounding clash of religious, ethnic, economic and political tension has often spilled over into violence. People were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between Han and Uyghur Chinese in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi in July 2009. In June 2015, the treatment of Uyghur Muslims gained international attention after Chinese authorities banned civil servants, students and teachers from observing Ramadan, and ordered restaurants to remain open. The World Uyghur Congress, exiled from China, explained that the ban showed how “the faith of the Uyghurs has been highly politicised” and that an “increase in controls could cause sharp resistance”.
The inability to untangle Islam from the political aspirations and ethnic identity of the Uyghurs explains why Chinese officials have restricted their religious practice whilst permitting the Hui to worship freely. The loyalty of the Hui to the State, coupled with their similarities with the Han majority place them at diametric odds with the resistive and distinct Uyghur Muslims. To the State, Islam in the hands of the loyal Hui is non-threatening. However, in the hands of the Uyghurs, Islam is an additional layer of exceptionalism that is used to justify a separatist agenda. Therefore the suppression of Islamic practice amongst Uyghurs is calculated to dampen the effect of religion as a unifying force within a group with pre-existing mutual political and economic grievances.
The inherent danger in a State-sponsored repression of Islam is that, it cultivates extremist attitudes within the Uyghur community. Whilst the internal conflict cannot be classed as simply a battle between an atheist State and a Muslim group, the on-going religious oppression does provide dissident Uyghurs with the evidence necessary to persuade others within the community to act.
This has had internal, regional and international ramifications. Uyghur separatists, inspired by the independence of Central Asian States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were responsible for 200 attacks, and 162 deaths, in China from 1990 to 2001. The animosity between Uyghurs and Beijing has also permeated beyond the borders of the People’s Republic. Many have fled China for safer havens across Asia. China’s growing muscle in Southeast Asian affairs was shown in the forcible return of 109 Uyghur refugees from Thailand to China, despite the clear evidence for Uyghur persecution within China. To the anger of human rights lawyers, this expulsion mirrored on-going diplomatic relations between China and the Central Asian States, where greater Chinese investment and economic agreements often went hand-in-hand with the return of Uyghur “terrorists”.
However, Beijing has not been able to demand the return of all its internationally based Uyghur citizens. The ethnic affinity between Turkey and the Turkic Uyghurs has caused diplomatic tension between Ankara and Beijing. The then Prime Minister, now President, Mr. Erdogan even called the deaths caused in the 2009 clashes as “genocide”. More recently, the main suspect of the bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok in August 2015 has been linked to the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, further exacerbating the strain the Uyghur struggle is having on Chinese International relations.
Unsurprisingly, the media-savvy Islamic State has noted the recruitment possibilities amongst Uyghur Muslims. In July, the group released a 12-minute video, imploring Uyghurs to join the fight. Around 300 Chinese citizens are now thought to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. In early 2015, a senior Malaysian official reported that a similar number had left China to join jihadi groups in Malaysia. Resentment towards China, as opposed to the grandiose aim of a global Caliphate, is thought to be the main factor inspiring international Chinese jihadi fighters.
The presence of a so-called Islamic State, and their call for Muslims to live under Islamic Law does highlight the ideological difference between loyal Hui Muslims and Uyghur separatists. Yet media focus on the presence of Uyghur fighters within Islamic State risks recasting the on-going tensions in Xinjiang through an exclusively religious lens. Dismissing the Uyghurs as an Islamic State fan club woefully disregards the historic, cultural, political, ethnic and economic conflicts in Xinjiang. However, when Uyghurs use religious repression as justification of their actions, they too risk inadvertently simplifying their grievances. Indeed, connecting the Uyghurs with international jihadi organisations has long been used by Chinese State officials to cloak the wider issues within Xinjiang.
The Uyghur struggle in Xinjiang is dirty laundry that Beijing does not want washing in public. With the issue cultivating increasing global attention, fencing the debate within a purely religious arena allows the State to link Uyghur separatists to infamous jihadis and thereby weaken Uyghur claims in the eyes of the international community. The oppression of Uyghur religious freedom also serves this same, reframing purpose – drawing media attention specifically onto the religious aspect of the conflict. 13 centuries after the battle of Talas, Beijing would once again like to draw the conflict in the far northwest as a battle against Islamist fighters from afar. However, the actual reality of this internal struggle is far more complex. Furthermore, the repressive policy reaction to the Uyghurs is a high stakes strategy: Beijing’s oppression has made the threat of Uyghur violence all the more real.
Tom Walpole is currently studying Arabic and Middle East Studies at the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. During his degree, Tom lived in Cairo and has focused his studies on security policy and Islamist movements within the Middle East. Tom is also alumnus of the European Youth Parliament and has an interest in researching the potential role of the European Union in Foreign Affairs.
*Cover image ‘Flag from People’s Republic of China‘ by Hector Garcia