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Unrest in Xinjiang Leading to Extreme Measures

Foreign Policy Blogs, 12 August 2014

Local authorities in China’s restive Xinjiang region are going all out in their efforts to fight terrorism, including those in the northwestern city of Karamay, who are now banning people who wear veils, head scarves, a loose-fitting garment called a jilbab, clothing with the crescent moon and star, and those with long beards, from boarding buses. Authorities argue the rules are being implemented to help strengthen security during the 13th Xinjiang Sports Games, an athletics event which lasts until August 20, according to the Communist Party-run Karamay Daily. Karamay is a resource-rich city of some 450,000 people located in the northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language. The region has been beset for years by violence that the government blames on Islamist militants or separatists, who it says want an independent state called “East Turkestan,” or “Uyghuristan” modeled after neighboring Central Asian nations. Two “Eastern Turkestan Republics” survived between 1931-1934 and 1944-1949 before Mao Zedong took control and eventually conceded the title “Xinjiang Autonomous Region” in 1955, partly to win over Turkic speakers in the territory.

The ban in Karamay follows one of the worst incidents in years, when on July 28, the Xinjiang government reported 59 “terrorists” were gunned down by security forces in Shache county in Xinjiang’s far south, with 37 civilians killed in the attacks. Three days later, the government-appointed head of the Id Kah mosque in the far western city of Kashgar was killed after leading morning prayers.

Violence this year has been particularly disturbing, following a suicide bombing May 22 at a morning street market in Urumqi, which killed at least 39 people and wounded dozens. Other attacks include the stabbing of six people in May at a train station in Guangzhou, a suicide bombing at the end of April at the Urumqi train station, and stabbings at the Kunming train station in March. The violence has also included a fiery vehicle crash at Tiananmen Square in October.

In an effort to stem the violence, Beijing promised “copper walls and iron barriers” as well as “nets spread from the earth to the sky.” Authorities also is reaching out to informants, promising those who surrender and offer information about other suspects or criminal activities “will be given minor punishment or exempted from punishment” if they turn themselves in within 30 days. In July, authorities in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi banned bus passengers from carrying items ranging from cigarette lighters to yogurt and water.

Following July’s attack, China is stepping up its efforts and offering more than 300 million yuan ($49 million) for residents who assist in a crackdown on “terrorists”. Already, authorities claimed to have recruited 30,000 volunteers to help encircle and hunt down ten terror suspects, and handed out 4.23 million yuan ($700,000) to individuals and government agencies who helped in the killing and capture of the suspected terrorists in Hotan prefecture last week.

While the above efforts have been partially successful in combating terrorism, local authorities may have gone a step to far in the zealous urge to prevent acts of terrorism. Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists have long argued against repressive government policies in Xinjiang, claiming that increasing its control on the practice of Islam has only led to greater unrest.

Rights groups claim Beijing has reacted to the increased religiosity by smothering Xinjiang with additional security measures, and imposing restrictions on Uighur travel rights, culture and religious practices. Recent crackdowns have banned students from fasting during Ramadan, restricted religious teaching for children, and put limits on Uighur-language education. The ancient market city of Kashgar, on the old Silk Road, has seen vast historical neighborhoods demolished and rebuilt, angering local residents.

In a speech by President Xi Jinping in May, Xi stated that while teachings by religious leaders need to be grounded in patriotism, “law-abiding” worshippers must be protected as the ruling Communist Party cracks down on extremists. But these “law-abiding” worshipers deserve not only protection, but freedom to practice their religion, including the right as Muslims to wear veils, head scarves, jilbabs, clothing with the crescent moon and star, and to wear long beards.

But does the Karamay government really think it can stop or limit acts of terrorism on buses by banning Muslims who display their faith through the clothing they wear? One would think a better measure is to check every passenger’s belongings before allowing them to board, with or without beard. The ban will only lead to more discrimination against those innocent Uighurs and simply displace potential acts of terrorism to other venues. I hate to make slippery slope arguments, but if the ban is deemed successful at the end of the athletic event, are there any guaranties it will be removed?

The policy of the Karamay government smacks of clumsiness and desperation, much like the bans on fasting during Ramadan throughout the region, or the reports coming from Kashgar of a local initiative known as Project Beauty, where guards at mobile checkpoints detain women whose clothing looks too Islamic. Petty efforts such as these will do little to stop terrorism and will only add to the discontent, discrimination and alienation of an already marginalized Muslim Uighur population.