As the holy month of Ramadan came to an end in China’s Xinjiang province earlier this week, militant violence flared in numerous towns and cities leaving close to 50 civilians dead, including the state-approved Imam of China’s largest mosque. The latest additions to a long list of attacks in the province, these clashes come in the wake of a heavily restricted month of Ramadan which has seen China’s reining in of Islamic activities hit an all-time high.
In the early hours of Monday morning, men wielding axes and knives are reported to have co-ordinated an attack on local government buildings, police stations and passing vehicles in the town of Elixhu. State-owned newspaper China Daily called the incident a “premeditated terrorist attack,” and that “police gunned down 59 terrorists and arrested 215 others.” The death count has been confirmed as 37 civilians, bringing the death toll to at least 96 in Monday’s violence.
Then on Wednesday, as Juma Tayier, the Ulm of Id Kah Mosque in the western city of Kashgar was returning from morning prayers, he was stabbed to death by three men, two of whom were shot by police. The Ulm had reportedly become unpopular after he publicly supported and collaborated with the Communist Party. Reports of the incident state that the attackers were men from the Uigur minority in Xinjiang, who were “affected by religious extremist thinking.”
The latest attack came then this Friday in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, with authorities claiming nine suspects were killed. Xinhua News Agency reported that those killed were “terror suspects.”
A province with vast oil and mineral reserves, Xinjiang became part of China in 1949 and is home to the Muslim Turk-speaking Uighur population. For years the Uighur people have opposed Chinese rule and accused the government of human rights violations and discrimination towards ethnic minorities. The recent wave of militant attacks in Xinjiang and greater China has seen Beijing create a correlation between Uighur violence and their Islamic religion. The focus of China’s year-long “anti-terror campaign” therefore is primarily on the Uighur community who they suspect have encouraged religious extremists backed by Al-qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Although it should be noted that 35 of the 37 civilians from Monday’s attack have be confirmed as Han Chinese, whose religious beliefs are those of traditional Chinese folk religions.
The state’s desire to monitor all cultural and religious practices in China has seen the enforcement of state-sanctioned religious parameters, the latest of which have seen teachers, students and civil servants banned from the traditional act of fasting during Ramadan. Children under 18 years old are now forbidden from being taught religion or entering mosques. Women are no longer allowed to wear certain types of veils, and the practice of religion outside state-sanctioned mosques or from a state approved Quran can result in imprisonment.
While the need to enforce policies that will counter the risk of terrorism are justified, many feel the state’s heavy handed approach of “extremely tough measures and extraordinary methods” is misguided and more likely to encourage radical separatists.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vow to deploy a “strike-first approach against terrorists in the region” has seen more than 400 people across Xinjiang convicted of terrorist activities, reported Al Jazeera news. Some if these convictions have been carried out at public rallies, the most notable of which saw 55 men convicted in front of a crowd of 7,000 people during a mass trial at a soccer stadium in the city of Yining.
Unrest in Xinjiang and opposition of Chinese rule dates as far back as the early 1990s, around the time that the demographic of the area began to change with a push for economic development in the region. The migration of Han Chinese workers to Xinjiang coincided with the state’s attempt to diminish the Uighur culture. Mass protests in 1997 resulted in the state executing 30 Uighur “separatists” which sparked violence throughout Xinjiang. This opposition to Chinese rule stems from a time long before September 11 or the rise if Islamic extremism.
While an increase in support for conservative Islam has been seen among Uighur communities, experts claim this stronger attachment to Islam simply coincides with the oppression of Uighur culture and their identity. The displacement of a large number of Uighur communities in Xinjiang have made them marginalised in comparison to the Han Chinese, with the teaching of the Uighur language now even limited in schools. Their religious beliefs and practices are seen by them as one of the few forms of the their culture and tradition that still remain, and the government’s prohibition of these practices just one more act of oppression against the Uighur people.