China is in the process of cracking down on what it claims are separatist elements among its Muslim-minority Uighur community who live in its western Xinjiang province. The Uighurs are ethnically Turkic and perceive themselves as being separate from the majority Han Chinese community. As the gateway of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xinjiang province in north-western China is vital to the country’s economic future. Its importance lies not only in its key geographical location, bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Mongolia and Pakistan, however, but also in its huge energy and mineral resources also constitute a large part of China’s total resources. The province is witnessing a crackdown, however, which targets its Uighur Muslim population. A United Nations human rights panel suggests that hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, of Uighurs are in “re-education” internment camps.
Questions are increasingly being asked about the lack of any reaction or condemnation by officials and religious leaders of Muslim-majority countries in South-East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. In fact, the topic is barely mentioned in the media of Muslim-majority countries. That could be due to the growing Chinese influence in those countries, which is, in turn, an outcome of their increasing economic ties. Associated with this, and as an instrument to upgrade the relationship to a strategic partnership, China assigned $23 billion in loans and financial aid to the Middle East after meeting 21 foreign ministers of Arab nation at the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in Beijing in July this year. This was, in the main, China’s attempt to ensure the stability of the region in its attempt to ensure the success of President Xi’s legacy project, the Belt Road Initiative.
Apart from its strategic location near the countries mentioned above, Xinjiang’s geographical location should also be examined from the perspective of its proximity to the Afghan and Pakistani borders, regions where large numbers of insurgent and radicalised groups are located. Probably the most important entity in this regard is the Islamic State in Khurasan (ISK). As a militant group, ISK follows the model used by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recruiting fighters through an extremist rendition of Islamic teachings. Its goal is to re-unite Muslims under the banner of a caliphate in Khurasan, a historic region that includes parts of Central Asia, in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan. All of these areas share a border with Xinjiang.
Since 2016, some of the measures taken by the Chinese authorities against the Uighur community include: hindering prayer and fasting during Ramadan; forcing them to abandon their beliefs in God and to comply with the rules of the Communist Party; and spreading Islamophobia. Many Uighur leaders believe that those measures aim to eliminate the Islamic faith in the province.
Those actions are not limited to the province, however, as they echo among the public of the countries that border Xinjiang and who share religious and family ties with the Xinjiang Uighurs. They find the lack of condemnation by Muslim entities frustrating and, in addition, the absence of reaction by the Muslim public in other parts of the world leaves the Uighurs feeling abandoned. This feeling of abandonment could be the trigger that transforms Xinjiang into a rallying call that attracts radicalised and radical-leaning individuals to a group with a hard-line ideology like the ISK’s. Those hard-line groups could use the suffering of the Uighurs as a reason to unite near the Chinese borders.
The case of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is reasonably similar. In his perspective, the war he fought was against the “foreign crusaders” in the Muslim world, as well as what he saw as domineering Middle Eastern regimes. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, locals resisted, using the arms and funds provided by an international coalition. For bin Laden, participating in this fight was not necessarily so much against the Soviets, as it was to join the fight beside “Islamist brothers”. Accordingly, he resided in Peshawar, in the Pakistani province near the Afghan border, and set up camps where volunteers who embraced his ideology came to join the fight.
Osama bin Laden resented the absence of Muslim unity against what he saw as “foreign crusaders” on Muslim soil. Furthermore, in 1992 he sought to promote a true Muslim country in Sudan, because at that time the adviser to the Sudanese President, Hasan Al Turabi, was advancing a political agenda based on Islamic beliefs. That agenda attracted bin Laden and he moved to Sudan, where he worked to enhance the country’s farming sector and build roads, in addition to establishing training camps for fighters. Therefore, his expulsion from Sudan left a bitter taste in his mouth. That setback pushed him further towards achieving his goal in Afghanistan, and to overcome what he considered a betrayal by the United States. After that, Al Qaeda co-ordinated its deadliest attacks on American interests around the world. In September 2001, it went further, striking inside America’s borders.
China’s actions, similarly, coincide with a growing Pan-Turkism movement in Central Asia. As a political movement, Pan-Turkism calls for the unification of all Turkic people in the area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Iran, Afghanistan, China and parts in South of Russia. This ideology, and its overlaps with the aspired-to Khurasan, could prove to be another way of attracting those who see the Uighurs as an oppressed Turkic population. Accordingly, the possibility of a more militant Pan-Turkism must be taken into consideration; it would not be the first time that the idea of a state predicated on a theocratic and Turkic identity emerged from the region. The creation of the Islamic State of Yettishar (1865 – 1878), with its capital at Kashgar, came about as the result of a series of uprisings in Xinjiang and the East Turkestan Islamic Republic, also known as the Republic of Uighuristan, rose in the 1930’s, albeit that it was short-lived.
The consequences of China’s policies in Xinjiang, combined with the silence of Muslim countries brought about for economic reasons and the growing Pan-Turkism, have the potential to spread across the borders of a region in turmoil. For a terrorist group with an ideology like ISK, which is currently struggling for power, the Uighur situation could be utilised to draw not only who were once members of ISIS but also affiliates of other groups that operate in the region, mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, supporters of Pan-Turkism can be attracted, and possibly radicalised, to take part in defending the Uighurs.The aim would be to unite them under one ideological umbrella: to help fellow Muslims across the border by fighting their oppressors.