|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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