Religious extremism is an ideology which spreads radical and extremist views and provides spiritual motivations and moral justice to terrorist activities. Religious extremism offers spiritual guidance to most terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda and has gotten attention from the whole world. As far as China is concerned, religious extremism is regarded as one of the “three evils” and was condemned for its involvement in a serious of terrorist attacks including the 2009 riot in Urumqi. Leaders of China are quite aware of the danger of religious extremism and have launched a series of actions to eliminate it from Xinjiang. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been condemned by countries like the US and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch for being repressive. If we look beyond the political rhetoric and propaganda, we can see that the rise of modern religious extremism in Xinjiang was an inevitable outcome of Chinese history.
The rise of modern religious extremism in Xinjiang is rooted deeply in Chinese history, especially the modern history of China. The cultural tradition of Xinjiang has historically been relatively independent. Although Xinjiang’s political connection with ancient Chinese dynasties has a long history and it was officially recognized as a province of the Qing dynasty in 1884, for a long time Xinjiang had evolved independently to some degree compared with the central parts of China. People who lived in Xinjiang were rarely influenced by Han culture, which is characterized by Confucianism, and developed their own cultural tradition which was highly influenced by Shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. Even when Xinjiang was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, close cultural exchanges between Uyghurs and Han Chinese were banned in order to foment feelings of estrangement between the local and Han people so as to serve the rule of the Manchu.1 With the Uyghurs gradually taking up the largest proportion of the population in Xinjiang, Islam has gradually had a deep impact on people’s everyday life as the dominant faith.2
Although Islam promotes peace as a religion and most Muslims are peace-loving people, Islam was twisted by extremists who used religion as a tool for separatism in modern Chinese history. Under the rule of the Qing Dynasty, revolts among Uyghurs to separate from the Qing occurred frequently, but almost all of them were successfully suppressed by the Qing emperors. Things start to change when the China suffered its “century-old humiliation.” Under the rule of the Republic of China, in 1933 and 1944, some Uyghurs separated Xinjiang from China and established their own countries — the East Turkestan Republics — with the help of the Soviet Union.3 Religious extremism was used to justify the separatist movement and attract more people to join in. According to the Japanese scholar Wang Ke, in both the First and Second East Turkestan Independence Movement, jihad was used to mobilize the ethnic groups. There was even a massacre during the Yining uprising which killed hundreds of Han Chinese. During both separatist movements, hate speech and dichotomous thinking were spread between Uyghurs and Han.
After the establishment of Communist China, although the Chinese government remained alert to separatism and violent activities, some measures taken by the government unwittingly facilitated the development of religious extremism. Xinjiang seemed to be more or less stable in the early years after the PRC was established. Although religious activities were restricted during the Cultural Revolution and some Uyghurs started to promote separatism, in comparison with the separatist conflicts in the 1990s and after, the first four decades seemed relatively peaceful. However, with the implementation of Reform and the Opening-up Policy, more opportunities for communications between local Uyghur Muslims and foreigners — including those from countries in the Middle East — occurred, and modern religious extremism, especially modern Salafism and fundamentalism, flourished in Xinjiang as imported ideologies in the 1980s.4
The harmonious coexistence of multiple religions could provide emotional support for people living in Xinjiang and thus prevent the rise of religious extremism.
After pilgrimages to Mecca were allowed in October 1979 after a 15-year break, 6,500 Xinjiang Uyghurs fulfilled this religious duty from 1980 to 1987.5 At the same time, religious exchanges between China and the Middle East were active. Both Saudi Arabia, where Salafism is highly valued, and Iran showed their interests in expanding religious communications with Chinese Muslims. As a result, thousands of Uyghur Muslims returned home from the Middle East with religious video cassettes and literature, which accelerated the rise of Islamic radicalism or “fundamentalism.” Historically, Islamic believers in Xinjiang do not share the same cultural traditions such as costumes or decorations with Muslims in the Middle East. However, in the 1980s, imams who returned from the Middle East started to dress like Arabs.6
In the late 20th century, regions in Central Asia such as Pakistan and Afghanistan became hotbeds of terrorism after clashes with the Soviet Union. Modern religious extremism penetrated further into Xinjiang at that time. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uyghur separatists were encouraged to build an independent country at all cost. Members of “East Turkistan” conducted more than 200 violent terrorist incidents in Xinjiang from 1990 to 2001, including assassinations, explosions, riots, and assaults.7 Religious extremism was used more widely as a way to justify terrorist attacks. Audio tapes captured by the Chinese police in 1996 were found to promote religious extremism publicly and encouraged Muslims to join the fight. Members of “East Turkistan” advocated the use of violence: “Those who do not fight, or do not fight at the expense of life and money do not have faith. We must fire at them at all costs”; “Whether he is parent, or anyone else, as long as he doesn’t obey the Islamic law, he is our enemy … (As for enemies) the method you take does not matter, as long as it can kill him.”8
To root out religious extremism, the Chinese government should pay attention to the uniqueness of religion in Xinjiang and rethink current counter-extremism measures. Currently, religious extremism still daunts people in Xinjiang. According to an interview with the Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Shohrat Zakir, in the southern part of Xinjiang, more young Muslim women nowadays wear the burka and more Muslim men wear a beard. At the same time, terrorist organizations have cranked up religious extremist rhetoric. The World Uyghur Congress called for the spirit of daring to sacrifice everything to attain “freedom, democracy and equality” in the newly published article called “Stand up Uyghurs”.9 ETIM/TIP frequently practice dualism when preparing for attacks. They indiscriminately regard Han Chinese civilians, officials, and military personnel as “Others” and describe them with “barbaric” and “infidel.”10 Extremists who participate in the struggle against China through weapons training and religious education are praised as “martyrs.”11
For a long time, the Chinese government has taken both hard and soft approaches to deal with religious extremism in Xinjiang. More troops and police officers have been brought in to guarantee security, and more funds have been invested to promote economic development in Xinjiang. However, although Xinjiang seems to be more stable now, people living there remain exposed to great risks.
The Chinese government should be aware that religious extremism can hardly be eliminated through hard strikes or high incomes. Measures at the spiritual level should be given more attention. The religious history of Xinjiang has shown that the coexistence of multiple religions and the uniqueness of Islam in Xinjiang are the region’s basic characteristics. Instead of stressing China’s policies and practices on protecting freedom of religious belief, especially Islam, the PRC should equally attach importance to the development of every religion in Xinjiang. The harmonious coexistence of multiple religions could provide emotional support for people living in Xinjiang and thus prevent the rise of religious extremism. What is more, the uniqueness of Islam in Xinjiang should be promoted. The historical cultural traditions of the Uyghurs, such as their colorful clothes and unique architecture, should never be abandoned. Not only do they form an indivisible part of Uyghur traditions, but these old customs also help to reduce the attraction of imported extremist religious ideas such as Salafism.
1. Wang, K., East Turkestan Independence Movement: 1930s to 1940s. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press (2013) p. 1-15.
2. Statistical Bureau of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region: http://www.xjtj.gov.cn/sjcx/tjnj_3415/2015xjtjnj/rkyjy_2015/201603/t20160315_492327.html
3. Clarke, M., China’s internal security dilemma and the “great Western development”: The dynamics of integration, ethnic nationalism and terrorism in Xinjiang. Asian Studies Review 31.3 (2007) p. 336.
4. Hao, Y., and Liu, W., Xinjiang: Increasing pain in the heart of China’s borderland. Journal of Contemporary China 21.74 (2012) p. 207.
5. Shichor, Y., Separatism: Sino–Muslim conflict in Xinjiang. Paciﬁca Review 6.2 (1994) p. 81.
6. Dillon, M., Xinjiang—China’s Muslim Far Northwest. London: Routledge Curzon (2004) pp. 60&90.
7. Hao, Y., and Liu, W., Xinjiang: Increasing pain in the heart of China’s borderland.
8. Reveal the “east Turkistan” terrorist forces. New Probe, http://www.cctv.com/zhuanti/newsprobe/dangan/dangan92.html
9. Uighurs, stand up and roar! The World Uyghur Congress, 2018-4-12, http://www.uyghurcongress.org/cn/?p=34391
10. Reed, J. and Raschke, D., The ETIM: China’s Islamic Militants and the Global Terrorist Threat. London: Praeger (2010) p. 53.
11. Zenn, J., Jihad in China? Marketing the Turkistan Islamic Party. Terrorism Monitor 9.11 (2011) pp. 8-9.