Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs
This is, of course, rubbish. Social Media does not incite terrorism, Islam does that.
The Chinese government is being insufficiently ruthless with the Uighurs. It allows them, for example, to have two children, while Han Chinese are limited to one. It might conduct an anti-religion campaign in Xinjiang, holding up Islam for analysis and mockery, pointing out the many failues — social, political, economic, intellecutal, and moral, of this war-fighting and mad-for-conquest faith. They might make efforts to revive interest in the Mongols, and the Turkic tribes, and to remind Uighurs of the alternative identity, and history, available to them, and to convince them that the time that the Muslims say is that of Jahiliyya, ignorance, because it was before Islam arrived, is worth studyiing and celebrating.
But mainly, the Chinese government should analyze, and then disseminate its analysis, of the many failures of Muslim societies. Why, despite having received nearly $24 trillion since 1973 alone, have the Muslim states of OPEC failed to build real econmies? What is it about the hatred of innovation, bida, and the inshallah-fatalism of Islam, that explains the economic backwardness of all Muslim states, save those such as Lebanon, with a large fructifying Christian population, or Turkey, where Kemalism systematically constrained the power of Islam? What is it about Islam that encourages submission to a despot (this might be hard for the Chinese government to discuss, or perhaps not)? What is it that keeps women in a state of submission, dull breeders without more? What is it that makes it so difficult for allÂ non-Muslims to trust Muslims, or to be treated semi-decently in societies dominated by Islam? How have Muslims treated the art and artifacts, or monuments, of the many different peoples — Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews — whose lands they have conquered, over 1400 years? And how is it that Islam is a vehicle for Arab supremacism, indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the histories of the non-Arabs who convert to Islam?
The Chinese, without Western inhibitions, could work to undermine the tug of Islam among the Uighurs. It would be worth trying, and might teach the West some lessons.
URUMQI, Chinaâ€”The video posted online last month looks much like ones from Middle East jihadist groups. It shows what appears to be a man making a suitcase bomb and grainy footage of an explosion at a crowded train station here. The soundtrack plays an Arabic chant inciting holy war.
But the video isn’t meant to rally followers in Iraq or Syria. Its appeal is to China’s 10 million Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group from this northwestern region of Xinjiang, some of whom have resisted Chinese rule for decades.
The Internet has been a key propaganda tool for Mideast militants. Now, it appears to be helping spread the ideology and tactics of violent jihadism to this remote corner of the Muslim world, poorer parts of which came online only recently.
Police patrol Urumqi after a bombing that killed 43 in May. China’s government launched a crackdown on terrorist material online on Friday.Â Kyodo/Reuters
The video was posted afterÂ a knife-and-bomb attack at a train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capitalâ€”one of a series of assaults in Chinese cities since October that have made unrest emanating from the region the biggest domestic-security issue for China’s leadership.
In the video, a speaker of Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) congratulates the train-station bombers, declaring: “In this blessed jihadist act, many Chinese migrant aggressors were killed and wounded. As for those remaining, it put terror into their hearts.”
Chinese officials are pointing to an upsurge in Uighur language videos like this and other religious-extremist material online as a key factor behind the recent attacks.Â China’s censorsÂ block most such material, but Chinese officials and some Uighurs say some locals find ways to access it.
China’s government launched a crackdown on terrorist material online on Friday and took the unusual step Tuesday of broadcasting a documentary on state television including jihadist video clips it said were from Xinjiang militants.
The film, jointly produced with Chinese police, said such material had inspired and helped to train the alleged perpetrators of several recent attacks, including an apparent suicide bombingâ€”a tactic rarely used by Uighurs in the pastâ€”thatÂ killed 43 at an Urumqi marketlast month.
The narrator of the film said most relevant videos were produced outside China, posted online via countries including Turkey, which has strong cultural links to Xinjiang, and then spread within the region via memory cards, social media and other electronic means.
The documentary also included a video the narrator said was filmed inside China. It showed men in camouflage fatigues and black balaclavas carrying swords and doing physical training in what the narrator said was the Gobi desert.
Another clip showed what the narrator said was prerecorded footage of three Uighurs who drove their vehicle through a crowd then set it ablaze near Beijing’s Forbidden City in October, killing themselves and three others.
The alleged attackers are shown praying and burning Chinese and American flags.
The clips in the film are mostly attributed by the narrator to the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, which China says has links to al Qaeda and has blamed for dozens of attacks, including many of the recent ones.
ETIM produced eight audio and video items online in 2010 but 109 last year, the film says.
But many of the clips in the film appear to be ones posted online by another group called the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP, which unlike ETIM has a website. Chinese officials say the two groups are affiliated and likely based in northern Pakistan.
Western governments and academics, and Uighur activists overseas, have long seen Uighur unrest either as part of a secular separatist struggle or as resistance to specific Chinese policiesâ€”not as part of a global jihadist cause.
Many of those people doubt that TIP or ETIM has al Qaeda ties or the resources to conduct attacks. They also say independent research into the violence isn’t possible because police surveillance makes Uighurs, even expatriates, reluctant to talk openly.
The World Uyghur Congress doesn’t condone attacks, says Alim Seytoff, a spokesman for the Washington-based activist group that claims leadership of a nonviolent campaign for an independent state of East Turkestan.
But some Uighurs are being pushed toward extremism by religious restrictions and China’s use of lethal police force against protesters, he says. “The more China goes after religion and religious people, eventually this will drive people into that,” he says. “That is a big concern.”
A foreign-ministry spokeswoman this month denied that Uighur unrest is linked to religious restrictions or other Chinese policies, saying that “China’s constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression but no religion should be used to promote terrorism.”
Some Uighurs and foreign scholars also say resistance to Beijing is taking on increasingly religious overtones, in part due to the Internet.
Regular visitors to Xinjiang report an increase in conservative Islamic practices, including women wearing veils, men growing long beards and children attending Quran classes despite official campaigns against such activity.
Several young Uighurs interviewed recently in Urumqi and two other Xinjiang cities say that trend is driven by enhanced Internet access and frustration at religious restrictions, which include a ban on children under 18 attending the mosque.
At Urumqi’s Yang Hang mosque, built in 1896, government notice boards list 40 regulations on use of religious meeting places and 26 kinds of illegal religious behavior. Police cameras monitor the area, and an armored police vehicle is stationed on a corner.
“The Web changed how we see things,” says a young Uighur in Urumqi, adding that social media is commonly used for sharing religious information. “We know there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and we are among them.”
Conservative Islamic practices don’t imply support for violence. Much Uighur-language religious material online instructs people how to be pious Muslims. None of those interviewed in Xinjiang say they supported the recent violence or viewed jihadist material online.
Still, searches of Uighur-language websites and social-media postings yield discussion about jihadism and jihadist videos, primarily those from TIP. There has been a marked increase in such material in recent years, say some overseas Uighurs and experts on Xinjiang.
Some young secular-minded Uighurs say they have clashed in private and social-media discussions with other Uighurs, inside and outside the region, who see themselves as part of a global jihad and advocate Shariah law and violent resistance to Chinese “unbelievers.”
Radical material has spread with Internet access, which only covered major cities in Xinjiang five years ago but is now available in poorer rural areas, mostly via mobile phone, says Lai Xin, an economic adviser to the local leadership.
“The seeds are from abroad, the soil is in China and the Internet is the marketplace,” says Erkin Tuniyaz, the ethnic-Uighur Vice Chairman of Xinjiang’s government.
The increasing religiosity of Uighur unrest implies a failure of Beijing’s efforts to control the Internet and religious activity in Xinjiang, a gas-and-oil-rich region of desert, high mountains and oasis towns bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It suggests that some young Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language, are becoming radicalized even as the imminent withdrawal of NATO-led troops from Afghanistan may help the spread of militant ideas from there and from Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
China’s new leader,Â Xi Jinping, has vowed to tackle the problem with aÂ yearlong counterterrorist campaign. Last month, he called for “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to capture terrorists, according to state media.
Chinese authorities have detained 380 suspects, convicted 315 and seized 3.15 tons of explosives since the campaign began, Xinhua said this week.
China has tightened security in major cities, too, issuing handguns to regular police, launching 24-hour patrols by commandos in armored vehicles and introducing pat-down checks at subway stations.
Beijing has also urged foreign governments to clamp down on jihadist material hosted on servers in their countries.
Some Western governments are re-examining their long-standing reluctance to label Uighur unrest as Islamist terrorism. The U.S. government, which came under fire in Chinese media for not calling one recent attack a terrorist act, has since used that term to describe other Xinjiang violence. The State Department declined to comment on that change.
Most Uighur-language jihadist material appears to show up first on foreign websites. A recent Uighur-language Facebook posting praises the Urumqi-market bombing. “Great God has given victory to our mujahedeen brothers in Turkestan, while causing the Chinese infidel even greater losses,” it says.
Analysts who track online jihadist content in other languages report more-frequent references to Turkestan from Arab and other non-Uighur militants, suggesting they see Xinjiang as part of a broader global jihad.
“It’s a new phenomenon,” says Ahmed S. Hashim, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who speaks Turkish and Arabic. “Xinjiang really wasn’t on the radar scope of jihadists until two or three years ago.”
There are parallels, Mr. Hashim says, with Chechnya, where a secular separatist movement evolved into a jihadist uprising in the 1990s and has conducted attacks in Russian cities.
Uighurs have traditionally observed a moderate brand of Sunni Islam, with some elements of the Sufi school, which incorporates music, dance and mystical practices.
But religious restrictions on Uighurs have grown tighter since the first major separatist unrest in 1990; after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 raised global terrorism concerns; and following ethnic rioting in Urumqi in 2009.
Visitors to the region say many Uighurs have reinforced their religious identity by adopting more-conservative forms of Islam, including the Wahhabi school, which originated in Saudi Arabia.
“Over the last decade, the government has really tried to implement a policy of interrupting the transmission of Islam from one generation to another,” says Gardner Bovingdon, a Uighur-speaking expert on Xinjiang at Indiana University. “In fact, this pressure on religion has made people more defiant.”
Many Uighurs who went overseas, Mr. Bovingdon says, became more religious because they could worship freely. Several Uighurs say some who studied Islam in Pakistan and the Mideast have gained influence within Xinjiang and in the diaspora. “They often speak Arabic and understand Islam very well,” says a Uighur man in his 30s in Urumqi.
Some Uighurs link the conservative trend to the 2009 Urumqi riots, after which Chinese authorities cut all Internet access in Xinjiang for 10 months and shut several Uighur-language websites hosted in China.
Although some have reopened, they are heavily censored, driving Uighurs to seek content from abroad. In a 2012 survey, Dilnur Reyhan, a France-based Uighur academic, found only one major Uighur-language website based in China that focused on religion. “Unsurprisingly, websites on the Islamic religion are located in Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” she wrote. She didn’t respond to inquiries.
Chinese authorities and some Uighurs say people in Xinjiang recently have been using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to get past censors. Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief, was quoted by state media in March saying 90% of terrorists in Xinjiang used VPNs.
Chinese authorities and some Uighurs say banned material has spread via flash drives and Chinese social-media services like WeChat that are harder to censor because messages are typically shared in private groups.
Chinese authorities suspended access to WeChat and several other instant-messaging services last month in Hotan, a Xinjiang city that has suffered several recent attacks, some people there say.
Many foreign academics and Uighur activists say Chinese authorities exaggerate the quantity of religious-extremist material online because they define it as anything violating official restrictions on religion.
The group most actively promoting jihad in Xinjiang online is TIP. The train-station clip is one of several it has posted, as well as audio and written material in Uighur and Arabic. Other videos urge would-be jihadists to record and publicize their attacks, and show how to use VPNs. TIP didn’t respond to inquiries to the email address on its website.
Chinese authorities say TIP works with the secular World Uyghur Congressâ€”an allegation the Congress denies.
Some Western scholars and government officials suggest TIP is trying not only to challenge secular groups for the separatist movement’s leadership but also to win foreign militants’ financial and operational support.
“I think the Uighurs are one audience,” says David Brophy, a Uighur-speaking expert on Xinjiang at the University of Sydney, “but partly this is an effort to present the struggle within Xinjiang within the framework of jihad.”
â€”Lingling Wei contributed to this article.