By Adrian Pabst
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In a little-noticed news story last week, U.S. lawmakers strongly condemned what they called China’s brutal pre-Olympic crackdown in the far northwest Xinjiang region, which is populated by the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic group. This condemnation related to a closed July 9 trial of 15 Uyghurs on terrorism charges, ending in the summary execution of two of the accused, three suspended death sentences and the remaining 10 receiving life imprisonment.
China responded by reporting that in the preceding week alone it had received three “significant” threats, leading police to arrest 82 people in five separate suspected terrorist rings for allegedly plotting attacks against the forthcoming Olympic Games. Meng Hongwei, the Chinese deputy minister for public security, declared that the threats had come from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and that the arrests had been made in Xinjiang, where separatist groups are said to operate.
It is still unclear whether Monday’s two bomb blasts in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, in which two people were killed, were in any way related to Islamic terrorism or separatist movements, but the attacks will undoubtedly fuel fear and suspicion with the Olympics just three weeks away.
Faced with the protest from U.S. congressmen, the authorities in Beijing swiftly denied any injustice and accused Washington of meddling in its internal affairs. A similar pattern of mutual accusation and recrimination — reminiscent of the worst of the Cold War — is already well-established throughout Central Asia. It has become a key battleground in the struggle for global influence and power, with its Muslim populations caught in the middle.
With the tacit support of neighboring Russia, the government of Kyrgyzstan has arrested numerous Uyghurs, whom it views as criminal, separatist and terrorist. Likewise, Uzbek leaders accuse ethnic Uyghurs from China and Central Asian countries of participating in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. Alongside the radical Islamic group Akromiya, the IMU was charged with fomenting unrest, leading to the Andijan massacre of May 2005, when several hundred civilians are believed to have been killed by Uzbek security forces.
In a region increasingly interconnected by migration and trade, the stateless Uyghurs, who represent over half a million people, provide an easy target for authoritarian rulers. The Uyghur cause has been defended by international human rights bodies, but it has also been hijacked by some foreign agencies and political movements.
In the name of universal human rights, the United States and its allies blame China and Central Asian countries for persecuting Muslim minorities. According to the influential Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, “the Chinese government should not be permitted to use the ‘war on terror’ or Olympic security as a front to persecute the Uyghurs.”
China, Russia and their Central Asian partners accuse the West of double standards and illegitimate interference. They say they are simply defending their territorial integrity against secessionist threats. They suspect the United States and others of orchestrating the Muslim minorities and supporting secessionism to strengthen the Western presence in Central Asia.
Both are right about each other, but wrong about Asian Islam. In fact, both the East and West pursue questionable goals and policies. Under the cloak of the “global war on terror,” both sides intervene against Islamic extremists in order to advance their rival interests. In a region rich in minerals, oil and gas, the United States established military bases in Manas, just north of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek and in Karshi-Khanabad, in southern Uzbekistan, not far from the Tajik border. These are both key locations in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida-related networks in nearby Afghanistan. China has undoubtedly exaggerated the terrorist threat in order to suppress political opposition and extend its sphere of influence in Central Asia.
But the East-West clash is not limited to the small but growing numbers of Islamic extremists. Increasingly, both sides also wage a battle for the soul of indigenous Muslims. Islam has been present in China and parts of Central Asia since the late 7th century. Muslims were integrated into the Chinese Empire during the golden age of cosmopolitan culture under the Tang Dynasty. Islam became part of Central Asian cultures and developed a civic identity through trade and political participation.
This important legacy is increasingly under threat. Citing the danger of international terrorism, Western governments sponsor programs promoting a modern Islam that is liberal and moderate. But it is unclear whether this strategy is really to the benefit of native Muslims or whether it is aimed at producing a more pro-Western Islam. Fearing separatism, the East denies indigenous Muslims any form of self-determination and reinforces a brutal regime of persecution and assimilation. Like Tibet, Xinjiang province is nominally autonomous but in reality ruled by Beijing’s iron fist. The crackdown on religious freedom in China and Central Asia also affects many other religious minorities, including numerous Christians.
All this matters because increasing interference from East and West is undermining traditional Islam in Central Asia and weakening its ability to combat from within the growing threat of radicalization. If Central Asian Muslims succeed in preserving and extending their brand of indigenous traditional Islam, then they will be better equipped to withstand political manipulation by the West and cultural assimilation by the East.
Adrian Pabst teaches religion and politics at the University of Nottingham and is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. This comment appeared in The National.