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China Cracks Down on Islamic Extremism, Sends Troops to Confront Uighur Separatists

Chinese officials warned about Islamic extremism at a regional meeting over the weekend, denouncing “jihad, terror, and violence” and vowing to defend China’s stability and cultural integrity.

Al-Jazeera collected comments from the regional officials in attendance at the meeting:

Shaerheti Ahan, a top party official in Xinjiang, on Sunday became the latest official from a predominantly Muslim region to warn political leaders gathered in Beijing that the “international anti-terror situation” is destabilising China.

Officials from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has an ethnic Hui population that is predominantly Muslim, warned similarly this past week about the perils of “Islamic extremism”.

Speaking at a regional meeting open to the media, Ningxia Communist Party secretary Li Jianguo drew comparisons to the policies of US President Donald Trump’s administration to make his point.

“What the Islamic State and extremists push is jihad, terror, violence,” Li said. “This is why we see Trump targeting Muslims in a travel ban.

“It doesn’t matter whether anti-Muslim policy is in the interests of the US or it promotes stability, it’s about preventing religious extremism from seeping into all of American culture.”

The Trump administration would, of course, strenuously disagree that the executive order is a “Muslim ban” or that its purpose was to “prevent religious extremism from seeing into all of American culture.” The order only affects six nations comprising about 10 percent of the world’s Muslim population, and it would only suspend most immigration from those countries for 90 days, so it couldn’t prevent much cultural “seeping.”

Chinese officials do seem to be thinking along those lines, however. Their most immediate problem is the Uighur minority; perhaps some officials are condemning “Islamic extremism” in such broad terms because they want to avoid further accusations of mistreating the Uighurs.

However, al-Jazeera reports on widespread skepticism of Islam and anxiety about the dissipation of “Chinese consciousness” that go far beyond any impact the fairly small Uighur population could have on enormous China.

Student Mohammed al-Sudairi is quoted warning of a “strengthening trend of viewing Islam as a problem in Chinese society,” which he links to President Xi Jinping’s nervousness about the erosion of Communist Party authority by religious faith. Christians have complained of increased persecution under Xi as well.

The Uighurs remain a specific and acute problem for China, as illustrated by last week’s release of an ISIS video full of trained Uighur fighters vowing to return home to China from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to “shed blood.” President Xi responded by calling for a “great wall of iron” against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang province.

“In retaliation for the tears that flow from the eyes of the oppressed we will make your blood flow in rivers, by the will of God,” said one Uighur militant in the video.

Chinese State Commissioner for Counterterrorism and Security Cheng Guoping called the Uighur separatist movement “the most prominent challenge to China’s social stability, economic development, and national security,” and worried about Uighur militants falling back to Afghanistan as ISIS crumbles in Syria and Iraq. The Chinese are so concerned with Afghanistan that they have been sending ground troops to conduct joint counterterrorism patrols with Afghan forces. There is speculation the Chinese military presence in Afghanistan may grow significantly larger as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw.

For their part, the Uighurs have some solid complaints about official Chinese repression, which has gone as far as forbidding Muslims from fasting during Ramadan. Residents of Xinjiang province have also noticed Beijing treating them to an extraordinary number of military parades. Last month, they were ordered to install GPS trackers in all of their vehicles so the government can monitor their movements.

Eight people were killed in a rampage by three knife-wielding men in Xinjiang in February, prompting a security lockdown in Pishan county and the arrest of several Uighurs. Chinese officials have described their response as an “all-out offensive” to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of the people’s war.” State-run newspapers have been using apocalyptic rhetoric about a coming battle between “good and evil, lightness and dark.”

The intensity of this response has inflamed local tensions, with Xinjiang residents complaining of police-state curfews and mandatory professions of political loyalty to Beijing. One man compared the situation to living through Mao Zedong’s genocidal Cultural Revolution in a BBC interview. The BBC also notes rumors that the Pishan knife attack was a response to police harassing a Uighur family because they held Muslim prayer meetings in their home.

The South China Morning Post writes of “growing anti-Islamic sentiment” on Chinese social media, citing the angry response to three young women – Han Chinese converts to Islam – who posted pictures of themselves wearing hijabs online. Responses ranged from “China needs no evil cult” and “When are you going back to Arabia?” to calls for the murder of “greens,” a derogatory term for Muslims evidently popular with Chinese Internet users.

The SCMP notes that China’s famously censorious government, which is very fond of taking down websites for spreading “hate speech” or “disinformation,” has taken little action against even the most intemperate criticism of Islam.

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