- There are roughly 22 million Muslims living in China today. The dominant Muslim minority group is the Uyghurs, a Sunni population who speak a Turkish dialect and live in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, home to 10 million Chinese Muslims.
- Unlike other Muslim groups, Uyghurs have demanded their independence and have sought to establish a separate political and religious entity in Xinjiang. In 1931 and 1944, backed by the then-Soviet Union, the Uyghurs effectively achieved independence.
- Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, Uyghurs have flocked to the Middle East. The Chinese government has alleged that “more than 1,000” Xinjiang separatists have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and claims to have arrested a hundred foreign-trained terrorists who made their way back to Xinjiang.
- The Chinese government has sought to dilute the Uyghur majority in Xinjiang by encouraging Han Chinese to resettle there. As a result, the Uyghurs represent today barely 45 percent of the population compared to having been a large majority in 1949.
- More terrorist attacks have been observed in China since the end of 2016. The attacks perpetrated by the Uyghurs follow almost the same patterns as those conducted by Islamic radicals in other places such as car-ramming, suicide bombers, and knife-wielding attackers. But the attacks are not publicized by the Chinese government, which keeps a tight grip on the information.
- The likely defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could potentially send back to China hundreds of Uyghurs who had been fighting in the ranks of the rebels, fully trained for guerilla warfare.
Islam has been present in China since the seventh century and has cohabited with the different Chinese dynasties that ruled China throughout history, although the attitude towards Islam and Muslims varied from time to time. At times Muslims were tolerated, and at times Muslims suffered persecution, hostility, discrimination, and oppression. At the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Muslim shrines and institutions were destroyed, and copies of the Koran were burnt in public.1
According to statistics difficult to verify, officially there are roughly 22 million Muslims living in China today. They are divided into the Hui, the majority Muslim group in China, totally integrated at all echelons of Chinese society, and allowed to practice their religion with almost no interference from the authorities. Other Muslim minority groups are Kazakhs, Dongxiangs, Salar, Tatars, Bonans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Utsul, Kyrgyz, Tibetans, and the dominant minority group, the Uyghurs, a Sunni Turkish-related population who speak a Turkish dialect and live in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
In the late 1970s, the Chinese government adopted a conciliatory policy towards Islam and even attacked critics of Islam. According to Chinese statistics, the country has 34,928 mosques, 45,051 Muslims teachers and administrators, and 23,480 disciples studying in the Islamic theological institutes in various regions.2 However, the Chinese government continued to exert a harsher policy toward Muslim groups in different parts of the country, especially towards the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, home to 10 million Chinese Muslims. While allowing the Hui to practice their religion freely and turning a blind eye to their educational system and institutions, the Chinese central government pitted the Hui Muslims against their age-old enemies, the Uyghurs. Many times in the modern history of China, Hui troops were used to quell rebellions initiated by the Uyghurs, at the heavy price of massacres perpetrated by the Hui against the Uyghur population.
The Turkish-related Uyghurs were among the early converts to Islam and as such maintained an Islamic culture which has been present for centuries in their areas. One can find today the earliest sign of Islamic Uyghur culture in a village called Tuyoq (named after the Uyghur word tuyuq or “not passable”), situated in the Tuyugou valley in the Taklamakan desert, the heartland of Uyghur presence, where there is the holy shrine of the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar (the shrine of the friends’/saints’ cave). The “Mazar” is a small cave that serves as a prayer hall, on whose walls are inscribed the verses of the 18th chapter of the Koran. The cave commemorates the memory of the seven sons of the king of Yemen who arrived in the area 2,000 years ago, seeking the creator of the sun, the moon, the sky, and everything on earth. They fled to this very cave, guided by a local shepherd, after the local king had decided to kill them. The seven are believed to be buried in the cave and a record in the Koran seems to illustrate the legend of the Al-Sahab Kahfi Mazar entirely.3
The importance of Tuyoq is paramount, not only to the Uyghurs but also for Muslim pilgrims from provinces surrounding Xianjiang – northwest China’s Gansu province and Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Turkey – who come to visit the holy shrine. According to popular belief, visiting the Mazar twice equals one hajj to Mecca. Some even stress the fact that any Uyghur must first stop at the Mazar before beginning his trip to Mecca. Local Uyghurs stress the fact that Tuyoq is nicknamed “Little Mecca,” having become – because of the travel restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities on Uyghurs – the alternative to the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca.4 While many Mazars were destroyed during the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the Tuyoq Mazar was left unharmed. According to locals, as in the ancient 2,000-year tradition, a dog kept guard of the Tuyoq Mazar, denying the Red Guards access to the cave.5
Bearing their Islamic cultural and religious background and heritage, and unlike other Muslim groups, Uyghurs have demanded their independence and have strived to establish in Xinjiang Province a separate political and religious entity carved out of the People’s Republic of China and culturally close to the Central Asia republics that share borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1931 and 1944, backed by the then-Soviet Union, the Uyghurs effectively achieved independence. However, the First East Turkestan Republic (1931-1934) was crushed three years after its proclamation by the 36th Hui Muslim Nationalist Division.6 The 1944 East Turkestan Republic was a Soviet Communist puppet state that lasted until 1949. Mao Zedong, the iconic Chinese leader, announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and in the course of that same year, Chinese troops invaded the Xinjiang Province. Following its annexation to the People’s Republic of China, the name Xinjiang was changed in 1955 to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Out of the several Uyghur “separatist” movements and organizations, the U.S. Treasury Department listed as a terrorist organization the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in 2002.7 Several years earlier, the Chinese authorities classified ETIM as a terrorist organization funded by Osama Bin Laden. That same year, U.S. Marines captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan, detaining them at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on suspicion of being enemy combatants.8 They were ultimately released and relocated to Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and Pakistan.9
In 1996, China signed the Shanghai Treaty with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, using the agreement to ask Central Asian states to dissuade their ethnic Uyghur minorities from supporting the separatist ETIM “in Xinjiang and to guarantee extradition of Uyghurs fleeing China.”10 This agreement has been enforced very actively since then by the Chinese, who used their influence with India to cancel an Indian visa given to an exiled Uyghur leader who China accused of being a terrorist. Moreover, China has played on the regional politics and tensions between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, conditioning its support on cooperation on the Uyghur issue with these regional players. China never missed an opportunity to thank its neighbors for their support of its policy towards the Uyghurs. Such was the case in April 2016 when the Chinese defense minister thanked Afghanistan for its support in fighting the separatist group.11
In recent years since the radical Islamic revival worldwide, and especially following the so-called “Arab Spring,” the United Nations’ al-Qaida Sanctions Committee reported, “ETIM has set up bases outside China to train its members and afterwards to return to China to plot and execute terrorist acts including bombing buses, cinemas, department stores, markets, and hotels. ETIM has also undertaken assassinations and arson attacks and has carried out terrorist attacks against Chinese targets abroad.”12
The UN committee continued: “ETIM has a close financial relationship with Al-Qaida. The major sources of funding for ETIM activities came from the (deceased) Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida and from organized crime such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, and looting.”…