A terrifying human disaster is currently unfolding in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—which is now anything but autonomous. Americans need to pay attention to what is happening in Xinjiang for at least two reasons. First, it is a humanitarian tragedy. Second, America has multiple strategic interests in the way this conflict unfolds. The outcome could affect our relations with the Chinese government. There is a risk that this conflict could fuel global Islamist violent extremism. Additionally, what happens in Xinjiang will be significant for the status of religious believers elsewhere in China.
Xinjiang: An Ever-Growing Fire
A few years ago, I visited China twice to learn about and meet with two of China’s ten ethnic groups that are predominantly Muslim. The first trip was to the province of Shaanxi, where many of the minority Hui live. The Hui are the largest Muslim-majority ethnic group in China. They are Chinese-speaking, relatively well-integrated, and generally economically prosperous. One day a Han Chinese government official present with us on part of that trip received an urgent phone call. When she got off the phone she informed us that there had been stabbing attacks in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
The July 2009 Urumqi stabbings escalated tensions in Xinjiang. China immediately shut down the internet in Urumqi and tried to tighten control of the region, with little interest or knowledge in the local language, culture, and history. To my surprise, even under tightened security, I was able to visit Xinjiang in the fall of 2009—a trip that is nearly impossible today. What I saw and felt in Xinjiang was a dry, wide-open prairie waiting to burst into flames. Now, in 2018, we are watching such a fire rip through this territory. It was heart-breaking then; today it is horrifying.
Recently, The Economist called Xinjiang “a fully-fledged police state.” Sigal Samuel of The Atlantic wrote, “China is Treating Islam Like a Mental Illness.” In August, a UN panel said China is running re-education internment camps in Xinjiang on a massive scale. But China rejects this claim; a government official in Xinjiang said China is “just” trying to counter “accused foreign terrorists and extremists of trying to ignite secessionist forces in Xinjiang.”
Most of the residents of Xinjiang are Uyghurs, members of an ethnic group from Central Asia. The political history of Xinjiang is complicated, as the region has been at the shifting seams of various empires over many centuries. By the early twentieth century, emerging modern China wanted to control Xinjiang, but the Uyghurs—supported by the Soviet Union and caught between empires, again—resisted. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic of China.
The region’s religious history is also complicated. While Buddhism was present in the region for a time, a gradual transition to Islam began in the tenth century. Islam continued gradually to gain prominence until the seventeenth century, when it became the main religion. Protestant missionaries began spreading Christianity among the Uyghurs in the nineteenth century and continue their efforts today, but they have had little success. Islam is by far the dominant religion among the Uyghurs, and their religion increasingly serves as a sort of “flag” marking Uyghur identity.
Political Separation May Not Be the Answer
For US foreign policy, regardless of our approach, we must recognize that multiple US interests are involved—human suffering, positioning of the United States relative to China, Islamist terrorism, religious freedom—and if we push too hard on one interest, we will harm another. If we are not careful, we could get enmeshed in a misalignment of interests that could hurt the Uyghurs living both in Xinjiang and in the United States.
Some activists explicitly advocate political separation of Xinjiang from China; they want to establish an independent Uyghur state, East Turkestan. Other activists avoid being explicit about separatism, yet they use language (e.g. East Turkestan) and images (e.g. the blue of the East Turkestan flag) essentially suggesting the same thing.
I am inclined, however, to think that the establishment of an East Turkestan is fraught with peril. First, China has significant domestic sources of oil and water in Xinjiang; it is unlikely that China would give up its access to these essential resources. Another issue is the power imbalance. While many Americans want to cheer for David against Goliath, the scale of the Uyghurs relative to the Chinese government is more analogous to that of an ant against the Empire, with its Death Star and Storm Troopers. Yes, we need to help David. But we should not blindly cheer for David as a way to feel good about ourselves. We should not claim we are taking on David’s cause when we are really just provoking Goliath into crushing David, while we sit here in America safe and sound.
To make things even more complicated, the Uyghurs are not the only ethnic group in Xinjiang. The region is also home to smaller groups of Tajiks and Kazakhs, among others, and China has aggressively sought to move other ethnic groups, especially Han and Hui, into Xinjiang. The vision some Uyghur separatists cast of establishing East Turkestan as a “Uyghur state” could in turn foster oppression of non-Uyghurs. This is not a solution. Defining the future of Xinjiang in solely ethnic terms creates more problems than it solves. The reality is simply more complicated than that.
Religion and Terrorism
Another challenge is Islamist terrorist groups overlaying their ambitions on the suffering of the Uyghurs. Al-Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir, ISIS, and others have been making forays into the Uyghur cause, each presenting their own group’s brand of political Islamism as the surest way to defend the Uyghurs.
Treating the Uyghur situation as a problem of religion per se is not only inaccurate, it is also dangerous. This could play into the hands of the various Islamist groups trying to exploit the profound grievances of the Uyghurs to bolster their own recruitment efforts. And then there is the broader issue of religion in China. There are signs that China is expanding its anti-Uyghur campaign into an excuse for an even more extensive program opposing religion of any sort in China. This bodes ill. Religion is certainly an element in this conflict, but Islam and this conflict are not interchangeable terms.
My first encounter with the Uyghur issue was at Guantanamo while I was an interrogator there (from 2004 to 2006). That’s where I learned about the terrorist organization called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Today, there are new factions of Uyghur elements among Islamist terrorist movements. For example, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) has close relations with ISIS and has sent fighters to Syria and Iraq. ISIS itself has called for attacks in China, invoking the Uyghur cause as justification. While participation by some Uyghurs in these terrorist groups is real, we need to recognize the fringe nature of such connections. The United States must not accept China’s claim that all Uyghurs are terrorists, a claim China seems to think gives it a pass to carry out a brutal crackdown across Xinjiang.
In terms of countering terrorism, wedges need to be driven between the Uyghurs and Islamist terrorist groups. Unfortunately, China’s practices in Xinjiang appear to be doing the opposite. The current crackdown is inhumane and will likely leave many otherwise moderate Uyghurs feeling they have no choice but to support violent Islamist movements claiming to act on behalf of the Uyghurs. The Chinese government is becoming ever more brutal in its efforts to crush the will, perhaps even the existence, of the Uyghurs.
How the United States Should Respond
Uyghurs who are caught between fanatic insurgents and an unjust government need to have a third option: they must not be forced to choose between submitting to ISIS or submitting to the Han-dominated Chinese government that seeks to crush Uyghur culture and leave its atheist stamp on the land. US interest lies in building this alternative path for the Uyghurs.
Recognizing the many complications in the issue at hand, here are some recommendations for ways to help the Uyghurs and support US interests at the same time:
(1) Congress should fund programs by the US Institute for Peace (USIP) to help Uyghur and other advocacy groups learn how to navigate advocacy in this religion-related conflict. USIP is uniquely situated between government and the private sector, and it has the in-house expertise to help navigate this conflict.
(2) Private foundations should fund similar training programs for Uyghur and other advocacy groups.
(3) The Department of State, including the Office of International Religious Freedom, needs to exercise discretion in situating the role of religion in this conflict within the context of domestic Chinese politics, international geopolitics, and ethnic and linguistic identities and tensions.
(4) Historians of the Uyghurs need to share their voices outside the ivory tower. The public needs historians’ help to find constructive paths forward and to avoid inadvertently making things worse.
(5) Americans should exercise discernment in what they read and share on social media regarding this conflict. Heed information from research-based, credible sources committed to a just, peaceful way forward, not whatever gut-wrenching headline or picture crosses one’s screen.
The combustible combination of ethnic identity, religious difference, unjust governance, historically rooted grievances, and geopolitical ambition are not new. What we need to do today is actually help the Uyghurs instead of inadvertently throwing more kindling and fuel onto this already raging fire.
Along the way, let us be mindful that while religion is only one element among many in this dangerous situation, it is an element of unique depth. Faith plays a profound role in the lives of many Uyghurs. I still recall the reverence of a Uyghur family I shared a meal with as they told me about the opportunity an elderly woman in their family had to take part in the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. If China thinks it will gain control of Xinjiang by trying to obliterate all remnants of religion, it errs gravely. China needs to realize that accommodating the deep roots of faith in its people is in China’s own self-interest.
Jennifer S. Bryson has a B.A. in Political Science from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Yale University. She currently resides in Washington, D.C.