Muslims within and Muslims without challenge a rising China

In early July 2009, the official Chinese press reported that 197 people had been bludgeoned or stabbed to death and nearly 2,000 more injured in communal violence in Ürümqi, the principal city of Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China’s farthest northwest region. For observers worldwide, the clash prompted a quick primer on another of the world’s festering ethnic conflicts. In this case, the antagonists were Han Chinese—Ürümqi’s dominant ethnic group thanks to decades of government-encouraged Chinese settlement—and Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, some 7–9 million strong, who have long bristled under the PRC’s erratic and harsh rule.

Throughout its modern history, Xinjiang, and for that matter China as a whole, has been riddled with inter-ethnic violence. On the face of it not much about last July’s violence seemed new. Yet even as Beijing mobilised thousands of armed police to re-impose ethnic harmony, it was striking how quickly the unrest escalated and garnered worldwide attention. Muslim-majority societies in particular took note, and so did the Chinese political elite: President Hu Jintao hastily returned home from a G-8 meeting in Italy. This was new.

Something akin to the violence in Xinjiang had already flashed across the world’s television screens in March 2008, when violence erupted between Tibetans and Han Chinese in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.1 Then, foreign leaders had called for restraint as rank-and-file supporters of democracy and constitutionalism around the world urged Beijing to respect minority rights and religious freedoms. Diplomatic rows with Japan and Australia quickly erupted, followed by one with Taiwan when the Dalai Lama visited Taipei in September. By contrast, the Xinjiang episode drew somewhat less harsh comment from Washington, Tokyo and Sydney, but it engaged official and popular interest in predominantly Muslim countries in an unprecedented way. The sharpest official condemnation came from the government of Turkey, which, not coincidentally, is home to one of the Muslim world’s few democracies and has important historical and cultural linkages to the Uyghurs. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the PRC’s policy in Xinjiang as virtually “genocidal.” This seemed a tacit avowal of “the New Ottomanism”, a foreign policy stance informed not only by an internationalist Islamic worldview but also by nostalgia for Turkey’s own multiethnic imperial glory that, at its height, abutted contemporary China’s own domains. For the most part, however, deference to China’s rising regional profile subdued the response of Muslim states in the Greater Middle East, sweeping from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, to the violence in Ürümqi. Even those two most self-congratulatory champions of Islamic causes, Saudi Arabia and Iran, behaved as avatars of Westphalian sovereignty, downplaying the violence as an internal Chinese affair of little concern to the foreign faithful. Each of these countries, of course, has billions of dollars of business on the line with China, and they are racked as well by their own domestic crises of legitimacy.

Will this silence persist in the event of another such flare-up involving China’s Muslims? Not if the popular reaction of the foreign faithful is any indication. Until now, Islamists have ranked China’s Muslims below their ongoing struggles in the Middle East, South and Southwest Asia and even Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus. But in recent years, some in the Central Asian, Indo-Pakistani and Arab revivalist movements have begun to denounce Chinese rule in Xinjiang as yet another example of post-caliphate crimes against Islam.

The modern Islamist narrative is very similar; it is a tale of weakness and despoliation by alien others, except that in the Islamist narrative China is an aggressor rather than a victim.

Continue Reading>>>>