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    Greater China
 
     Jul 29, 2009

Xinjiang riots confound Islamists
By Sreeram Chaulia

Despite the outbreak of devastating violence affecting the Uyghur Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang region, the Muslim world has not shrieked unanimously or decisively in outrage. More Muslims in far-flung parts of the planet protested the denial of democratic rights in Iran in the last few days than the plight of their co-religionists in Xinjiang.

Since the state crackdown after the street battles took hold in Urumqi, Kashgar and other parts in Xinjiang, the protest banner has been languishing in the hands of only a handful of ethnic Uyghur citadels outside China. This is a far cry from millions of angry fellow Muslims moved by solidarity for Uyghur activists demanding self-determination from Chinese rule.

As an issue, Xinjiang has failed to whip up pan-Islamic fervor despite the steady marginalization of the largely Sunni Muslim Uyghurs under Chinese communist control.

Over the years, spleen vented at abuses or humiliation of Muslims and their sacred symbols has been channeled into mass protests from Morocco to Malaysia. The wave of disturbances following the publication of insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark in 2005 shook virtually every place on Earth where Muslims resided in sizeable numbers. Death threats, burning of effigies, arson against public utilities, torching of embassies, bomb attacks and related acts resulted at that time in the deaths of over 139 people. The conflagration was so forceful that the media dubbed it the "Cartoon intifada"- a dark pun on the Palestinian uprisings, which usually set fire to the Muslim sensibility, irrespective of nationality.

Earlier in 2005, when Newsweek magazine alleged that some American personnel manning the Guantanamo Bay prison had deliberately flushed copies of the Koran down the toilet, it set off a furor in countries as far apart as Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia. So infuriating was the memory of this act that it inspired one of the Pakistani-origin suicide bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, to bomb the London public transport system in July 2005.

Come July 2009 and the Xinjiang violence, where is the inflamed "Muslim street" and its rabble-rousing leaders? Officially, Turkey was the only country which huffed that "genocide" was being committed by China against the Uyghurs. But Ankara's harsh language had more to do with ethnic affinity for Uyghurs, who are racially Turkic in origin, than with a general sympathy for "Muslim brothers and sisters".

Thousands of Uyghur immigrants live in Turkey and remind Turkish nationalists of the dream of an independent "East Turkestan" (the former name of Xinjiang). While most contemporary Turks have mixed blood after mingling with Europeans and Arabs, the Uyghurs isolated themselves from other ethnic groups and are admired by Turks as the closest to their pure-bred ancestors. The survival of the Uyghurs, who face demographic flooding in China, is associated with stirrings of national identity in Turkey.

It is because of such emotional attachment to Uyghurs that the Turkish Industry minister risked economic relations with Beijing by urging a boycott of Chinese imported goods after violence flared up in Urumqi. As many as 107 Turkish lawmakers from a China-Turkey inter-parliamentary group resigned in disgust. Thousands of Turks joined Uyghurs in Istanbul and other Turkish cities after Friday prayers chanting "Murderer China" and "No to ethnic cleansing."

A Turkish delegation of five MPs, led by the chairman of the Committee on Human Rights, Zafer Uskul, announced that they would travel to Xinjiang to assess the situation on the ground. The very tag "human rights" which these MPs carried raised antlers in Beijing, which unceremoniously squelched the proposed trip without offering a public explanation. More than 12 days since the Turkish delegation expressed intent, it is still waiting for China's permission.

Turkey's angst over Xinjiang did not infect or enthuse other Muslim countries, not even in its immediate neighborhood. Many observers noted the irony that a state which many believe has yet to accept its own genocide against Armenia during World War I is casting stones at China with the slogan of genocide against Uyghurs.

The only non-Turkic Muslim country where some noise was drummed up immediately after the Xinjiang mayhem was Indonesia. Islamic organizations in Jakarta gathered before the Chinese embassy, displaying flags and posters and criticizing Beijing's treatment of Uyghurs. They reiterated the pet project of "holy war" against infidels. The timing of these demonstrations could be related to Indonesia's presidential elections, which were just around the corner as flames broke out around Urumqi.

Apart from this, a shady Algerian outfit known as "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" issued a threat that it would target Chinese people abroad in revenge for "the deaths of Muslims" in Xinjiang. Some strategic consultants aver that "jihadists want to see action against China" for its harsh policies towards Uyghurs, but much of this remains in the realm of speculation.

A key Muslim country, Iran, which has a history of kicking up storms over desecration of Islamic symbols (recall the Salman Rushdie affair) and the sufferings of fellow Muslims (both Shi'ites and Sunnis), has notably remained silent on Xinjiang. There appears to be a verbal pact between Tehran and Beijing that they will not berate each other over internal political challenges. Tehran's absolute tight-lippedness on the Uyghur question is likely to be payback for Beijing's recognition of President Mahmud Ahmadinjad's controversial re-election in June.

The general realization that Iran needs China on its side at the UN Security Council on each occasion when the former's nuclear program comes under the scanner seems to have also held back the fire-spewing ayatollahs from denouncing the bloodshed in Xinjiang.

Why did Islamic establishments and publics let go of the Xinjiang violence so lightly, with barely a murmur or two? The answer lies in the complicated construction of enemies by Islamists. The "West", as a category, has been blamed by radical Muslims as the bane which ruined former Islamic political and cultural glory. So, when atrocities or slights are seen to be committed against Islam and its adherents in a European or North American country, they confirm the pre-existing prejudices and hatreds nursed by the Muslim street and its instigators in positions of power.

Sometimes, the "West" is also extended to include countries like Russia, Israel and India - all of whom are viewed by Islamists and their followers to be oppressing Muslims in their respective disputed territories. But China's image as a staunch rival of Western powers and which does not intervene in the Middle East confuses hardline Muslims, who place it in a nebulous mental space.

China does not fit neatly into the binary jihadist classification of the world into dar-ul-Islam (a land where Islamic laws are followed and the ruler is a Muslim) and dar-ul-Harb (a land ruled by infidels and where Muslims suffer).

That China has so far escaped major jihadist attacks on its soil or its overseas representations in spite of its harshness towards Uyghurs is not a function of its superior counter-terrorism strategies but rather of the label fixation among Islamists. The West, however geographically and politically incongruous a concept, continues to be the favorite dartboard for fiery Muslims.

It is a fixation that absorbs the Islamist heat and allows China a free hand to deal severely with the Uyghurs.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

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