The World Uyghur Congress strongly condemns Uyghur participation with so-called Islamic State (ISIL)
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), in light of recent evidence, unreservedly condemns the inexcusable actions by Uyghurs who have travelled to Syria to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State (ISIL). A recent report by New America has regrettably shown that at least 114 Uyghurs were registered with the group between 2013 and 2014. The WUC is saddened by these developments and openly discourages and condemns violence in any form both on clear moral grounds as well as its capacity to undermine the cause of the majority of peaceful Uyghur activists and all Uyghurs living in East Turkestan today.
There have been, for some time, reports indicating that some Uyghurs have fled in order to fight for ISIL and we have taken great care to take these allegations seriously. More recently, the report released by New America, a Washington-based think tank, has provided credible evidence to suggest that a group of Uyghur fighters made up their ranks at least in 2013 and 2014. The report employs a dataset with over 3,500 entries initially collected by ISIL officials on the Syria-Turkey border between mid-2013 and mid-2014, and acquired as they were leaked in early 2016 by a defector.
As an organization that peacefully promotes democracy, human rights and freedom for the Uyghur people, it is imperative that we understand motivating factors that led some to uproot their lives for the cause. It must therefore also be made clear that attempts at understanding factors behind this behaviour should not be conflated with justification, but as a concerted effort at determining root causes in hopes of consequent prevention. The report itself is instructive in this regard and stands as a valuable piece of literature for those looking to preventative measures.
Beyond profiling the fighters themselves, the report interprets push factors for the Uyghur population and speaks of East Turkestan in terms of the, “significant economic disparities between the ethnic-majority Han Chinese and the local Uyghur Muslim population, who are subjected to substantial state repression through restrictions on Islamic practices like growing beards or wearing head coverings.”
The report also suggests that, “the country’s [China’s] anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang could be a push factor driving people to leave the country and look elsewhere for a sense of ‘belonging.’” Drawing on outside research, the report also describes how, “between 1990 and 2010, the Chinese government gradually turned Uyghur national identity and Islamic practices into national security threats, i.e., extremized/securitized them.”
Additional contributing factors may include significantly low levels of education and employment among the group. The vast majority reported only an elementary level of education with most falling into the category of unskilled labourers—only two of the 114 fighters once held a professional or advanced professional job. Poor levels of education coupled with nearly non-existent levels of international travel may have also contributed to the high degree of susceptibility to ISIL propaganda and recruitment of radical groups after fleeing China.
The Chinese government has also purposely blurred the line between the hundreds of peaceful Uyghurs escaping East Turkestan for a new life and those potentially leaving for Syria. Following in-depth interviews with Uyghur refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey in late 2015, we found that all whom we spoke with were determined to begin their life afresh in the new country after painstaking travel through Southeast Asia from 2012 to 2014. Chinese authorities, however, have looked to paint all those fleeing repression as would-be terrorists—a claim simply not supported by facts.
The same strategy has been employed in regards to domestic cases as well. China has, for years, used the ostensible threat of terrorism as a justification for its severe curbs on religious and cultural practices and restrictions on freedom of movement. China’s Anti-Terror law, passed in December 2015, with worryingly broad and vague definitions of “terrorism” and “terrorist activities”, has served only to reinforce the fiction that the Uyghur population is more susceptible to employing violence as a means of resistance.
In line with these problems, the WUC also remains concerned with the ready acceptance of this narrative from the international community. Most notably last month, the British government added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to its list of proscribed terrorist organizations. It must be noted that the listing was reportedly made as a result of the group’s actions in Syria—not China. For additional reference, the United States made the same designation back in 2002 as a means of gaining further support in its own ostensible War on Terror. Moreover, many anti-terror experts have long-questioned question the existence of ETIM as a coherent group since the death of its leader in 2004.
On a recent visit to China, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice reportedly discussed the mutual threat of terrorism against both countries in some detail and how best to counter such a threat. It is therefore troubling that no public comments have since been made regarding clear issues raised from the US’s own Country Report on Terrorism for China, which states that, “China accused Uighur activists abroad – including in the United States – of complicity in supporting terrorist activity, but has not provided credible evidence to support the claims.”
Furthermore, with regards to consistency, the report also asserts that, “China also appeared to apply inconsistent labels to incidents of mass violence involving Han Chinese suspects. For example […] China designated a series of 17 explosions in September that damaged government buildings and neighborhoods in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, killing seven people and injuring more than 50, a criminal rather than a terrorist act and arrested a suspect surnamed Wei.”
All told, the Chinese government for years has capitalized on global insecurity about terrorist threats. While those who choose violence or offer support to groups like ISIL must be strongly condemned, we must not allow misinformation or emotional appeals to trump the fact that the vast majority of peaceful Uyghurs are not represented by a tiny few. We therefore urge the international community to act diligently while examining these cases, and to react to these developments rationally with an eye to preventing them from the outset.