Columns of paramilitary police are now keeping a tenuous peace in Urumqi, the western Chinese city where more than 1,000 Uighurs rioted ten days ago in the bloodiest clash in decades between the authorities and the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group.

The eight million Uighurs who live in Xinjiang province have long chafed at Beijing’s rule. Shortly after the United States introduced the concept of a global “war on terror,” the local police seized the opportunity to ratchet up already stringent security measures aimed at Uighurs under the mantra of cracking down on the “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” The police treat these threats as interchangeable and as the underlying source of Uighur discontent in the region, despite the abundance of obvious socio-economic grievances-- which range from income inequality to dilapidated schools to job discrimination. The resulting dynamic is a simmering cauldron of unrest, ever threatening to boil over as in last week’s riots.

But perhaps the most tragic irony lies in the Chinese insistence that Uighur dissent is rooted in ideology and religion, and that recent incidents of violence--such as the string of bus bombings and attacks on police that last year riled southwestern Xinjiang--are the work of Islamic extremists and agitators tied to foreign campaigns. In truth, the Uighurs’ observance of Islam is largely apolitical, but by treating the Muslim faith itself as a threat and sharply curbing religious practice in Xinjiang, Chinese security forces may end up breeding the very kind of insurrection they are now trying to quell.

In principle, Islam is one of China’s five officially recognized and legal faiths. But in practice, Uighurs face a litany of restrictions on daily devotional life: In Urumqi, mosques are banned from playing the call to prayer; in the ancient city of Kashgar, anyone under age 18 is barred from entering mosques during major Muslim festivals; and throughout the province, inspectors from China’s ethnic Han majority routinely saunter into mosques to post government propaganda and peruse log books. As one Uighur man told me outside a mosque in Kashgar, “In theory, we have more religious freedom now [than during the Cultural Revolution]. But in reality, it is different. Of course it makes us angry.”

It’s not uncommon to feel threatened by what you don’t understand. And fundamentally, the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded on materialist principles and encourages atheism among its members, doesn’t understand religion. Its leaders see every non-state-supervised religious gathering, or attempt to impart values to children, as a potential threat to their political authority.

It’s true that the Uighurs in Xinjiang are devout. Last fall, when I visited Kashgar during Ramadan, every Uighur man I met was keeping the fast. And on the holy month’s final day, called the Rozi Festival, ten thousand men from across southwestern Xinjiang gathered to mark the occasion outside the city’s historic Id Kah mosque. It’s also true that the restive western province is located smack in the middle of volatile central Asia and borders eight nations, some of which, like Pakistan and Afghanistan, are wrestling with Muslim extremism.

Yet if you visit Xinjiang, you’ll hear little about jihad or fatwas, and few diatribes against contemporary lifestyles, women’s rights, or capitalism. The Uighurs, like the Turks with whom they share ethnic and linguistic roots, embrace a blending of devotion and modernity. While Islam is a central aspect of their identity, Uighurs don’t view the world, or their relationship to Beijing, as an ecclesiastical clash of civilizations. They have plenty of complaints about Chinese government policy, but those grievances aren’t formulated or expressed in the name of Allah. Nor do Uighur clerics enforce a culturally conservative outlook. Women in Kashgar wear headscarves, but they also zip themselves about town on motorbikes.

Although the world knows little about Xinjiang, educated Uighurs themselves tend to be outward-looking: Many speak three languages (Uighur, Mandarin, and English), and their English is often more fluent than that of their Han counterparts. Far from decrying global pop culture, Uighurs I met spoke fondly of Bruce Springsteen, Lindsay Lohan, and Braveheart.

As Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University, told me, “The Islam of Xinjiang is not the Islam ascendant in some Middle Eastern countries, where religion is more fundamentalist, textualist, rigid.” Uighurs, he added, have a heritage that is distinct--culturally, linguistically, and in outlook--from the Arab countries sometimes understood as Islamist flashpoints.

In fact, the notion of highly politicized religion seems at odds with Uighur mentality. When I traveled along the Karakorum Highway, a winding mountainous route stretching between Kashgar and Islamabad, my Uighur driver was quite concerned that we not actually cross the border into Pakistan. “It’s a dangerous country--it’s fundamentalist,” he said. I asked him what that meant, and he explained, with a touch of mirth, “Fundamentalism means the men make the women stay home and take care of their bad children.” Humor aside, he said he didn’t want his home to become a place where Islam was deeply politicized. For now, he saw Xinjiang as different.

Some observers credit China’s strict border controls--including a policy of routinely denying visa requests to Uighurs who wish to visit Mecca--with insulating the region from more incendiary religious factions in neighboring and nearby countries.

But at the same time, many analysts believe that further restricting religious observance--a troubling likelihood today, as Chinese authorities look for scapegoats in the wake of the riots--could encourage radicalism. A recent Human Rights Watch report makes a detailed and alarming case that China’s “overbroad and repressive policies in Xinjiang deepen local resentment and risk further destabilizing the region.” Or, as Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia University, puts it: “It’s a real dilemma for the Chinese regime: They have long been committed to this regulatory repressive track, but it produces resentment. It produces resistance.”

One afternoon, when I was visiting a small village mosque in southwest Xinjiang, two Han inspectors sauntered in, out of place in their dark brimmed hats; they didn’t ask any questions, but seemed there largely to intimidate, to make their presence felt. My Uighur guide felt instantly uncomfortable, as if incriminated, and insisted we leave. The impression such encounters have left him with is: “I don’t like police. They are always rude and rough.”

Fueling popular indignation is a serious risk. As Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis, points out, the Chinese government could target alleged extremists (if they existed) without putting the entire Muslim community of Xinjiang under suspicion: “What should the government do if it was trying to control a real threat? Short term: Infiltrate these groups; arrest people with arms. Long term: Eliminate source of grievances, and allow more autonomy, religious and cultural freedom. … Calling everyone a terrorist is not useful to achieving the goal of stability.”

Or, as Nathan puts it: “Islam is extremely diverse. We should not ‘essentialize’ Islam. … Countries and governments hurt themselves with the idea of a class of civilizations. We paint ourselves into a corner. We make a situation much worse by our imagination.”

Christina Larson is an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She reports from Washington, DC, and Asia.


By Christina Larson