Beijing Tries to Rein in Muslims; Uses War on Terror to Justify Crackdown on Uighurs

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Beijing Tries to Rein in Muslims; Uses War on Terror to Justify Crackdown on Uighurs


Byline: Anton Foek, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

URUMQI, China - Although it rarely reaches the outside world, news from Xinjiang province in northwestern China near the border with Kazakhstan is sel-dom good and never happy.

Xinjiang is part of Muslim China, and the news from Beijing is that a number of separatist rebels have been arrested and detained. The news was worse a few months ago, when authorities acknowledged that 18 rebels and separatists had been killed and 17 wounded by government troops.

They were killed in the border region near Afghanistan, next to Tibet, the other rebellious and separatist region of China. The central government says it is vital to stop religious extremism and the threat of terrorism in restive Xinjiang.

Chinese rule over Tibet is questionable and controversial, as it is in Xinjiang province and Inner Mongolia. All are autonomous regions, officially allowed but not encouraged to use their own languages. Use of a local national anthem is prohibited, and there is no local politics.

A world away

For a foreign reporter, there is no other way to visit these regions except supervised by a few Beijing officials and agents who apparently work undercover. The first stop is Kucha in Xinjiang. At first, it is difficult to identify as Chinese this town of nearly 100,000 inhabitants in the Tarim Basin desert.

The shop signs are in Arabic, women are veiled, and men wear turbans. The big, newly built mosque replaces the old, demolished one and is near a shopping mall where McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken dominate the skyline.

"Of every hundred people living in Kucha, 80 are Uighurs, and we risk being arrested, tortured and sentenced to labor camps for anything the government accuses us of without trial," a woman of Uighur descent at a human rights group in Beijing told us before we left.

"Life is pretty tough for Muslims in Xinjiang," she added, warning that residents may get into trouble if they speak to foreigners. Speaking to foreign reporters is even worse, and could land them in jail.

China is flooding the region with Han Chinese. It builds roads, banks with ATM machines and modern housing, as China's central government puts a premium on emulating the West. Developing infrastructure is part of the strategy to bring the rebel province under control and closer to Beijing.

The party line

The press trip is mainly to convince the audience about the region's security and safety.

Chinese officials say: "Everything is under control," despite the fact that Uighur rebels have been trained by Osama bin Laden and seek to separate Xinjiang from China.

Beijing officials say that there is no need for separation, that the Uighurs are not oppressed nor discriminated against and that there is complete freedom of religion.

After prayer, one of the imams meets visitors in the mosque's inner court. Sitting cross-legged, the cleric tells us that all is peaceful and quiet on the Western Front.

Followers surround the imam, listening eagerly to what he has to tell the foreigners. An interpreter translates from Uighur into Chinese, followed by another translation into English.

There is no need for the Beijing officials to contradict or interfere. Not a single unwise word comes from the imam.

"Yes, we Uighurs are free to worship our own religion, and everyone here has already been on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

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