Banning the Islamic Veil in Xinjiang and Terrorism in China
Last week, an article by Foreign Policy stated that the Chinese Communist Party played a crucial role in banning the Islamic veil in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, because they have “drawn a direct link between veiling and radical Islam and even terrorists”. However, evidence indicates that the Chinese Communist Party’s ban on the veil may be just another excuse to continue marginalizing the Uyghur Muslim minority in China.
Most of the Uyghur Muslims have their roots from East Turkistan which was annexed as a part of China after the Manchu Empire invaded in 1884. Former East Turkistan became known as the Xinjiang province. Between 1949 and 1976, the percentage of ethnic Chinese people rose from 6 percent to 41.5 percent after Beijing initiated an assimilation and migration policy in 1949. Today, 45 percent of the 22 million population is Uyghur, while 40 percent is Han, making Xinjiang a Muslim-majority province. 
Such migration over the years has led to vast employment and economic inequality in Xinjiang. Although economic growth is beneficial, many of the Uyghur believe that the Han will be the ones benefitting from the economic expansion. Fifty-nine percent of Xinjiang’s population living beneath the poverty line are from an ethnic minority and most of these minorities work in the public sector whilst the Han population dominates in the private sector. For example, only 38 percent of the Han population works in the agricultural sector while 61 percent of Uyghurs work in agriculture. Despite the fact that the Chinese government provides significant subsidies to its ethnic minorities, such as subsidies for newlywed inter-ethnic people in Xinjiang, many Han are sceptical about their benefit from the economic expansion. In addition, economic growth rates in Xianjing suggest that minorities do not benefit from the growth as much as the majority. For example in 2003, Karamay (an oil-rich city in Xinjiang) enjoyed a per capita income of approximately $8,000, whilst for ethnic minority populated cities such as Kashgar the per capita was only around $500. Moreover, economic expansion has also demolished many of the traditional houses of ethnic minorities in Kashgar and has pushed many Uyghur to the outskirts of the city. In 2009, the Chinese government asked thousands of Uyghur to leave their homes because the walls were not “secure” in case of an earthquake threat. Many Uyghur felt forced to leave their homes into new compounds where they were separated from their families and work places.
Uyghur tension with the Han and the Chinese central government has been increasing over the years largely due to religious repression. Starting in 1998, the Communist Party laid out a set of guidelines to control religion in Xinjiang. They held that they must tighten regulations around religious personnel and fight against non-governmental activity. Authorities were prescribed to “control the imam’s ideological state at all times”, and they must undergo annual revisions to keep their jobs.
September 11th incited a further crackdown on religious activity starting in 2001. The 2001 Amendments held for a “narrowing of “normal” religious activities”, for religious leaders to demonstrate loyalty to China, prohibited pilgrimages not arranged by the government, narrowed the right of religious organizations to sponsor seminars, and control on what religious organizations publish. Uyghur mosques also underwent regular supervision, with 23,909 mosques inspected in 2001 and numerous mosques being demolished. Seven imams were arrested that year. Teaching religion at school and university also became illegal. Religious repression continued over the years, with this past July seeing a ban on Ramadan fasting in Xinjiang. Now, with the ban on the Islamic veil, many Muslims find it increasingly difficult to cope with living in Xinjiang. Further, the Uyghur also encounter various forms of ethno-cultural repression, such as Mandarin having to be the primary language of instruction in education systems, as opposed to the Turkic language that most Uyghurs speak.
Before the ISIL threat, a report on Human Rights Watch highlights how “while there are genuine security concerns in Xinjiang”, the Chinese government raises the issue of “Islamic terrorism” to foster international support for its crackdown on Uyghurs. For example, a document titled “East Turkestan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity” by the Informational Office of the PRC State Council holds that 162 deaths and 440 people were injured as a result of Islamic terrorism between 1992 and 2002. However, many were skeptical about these claims as much of the evidence needed to support them had been left out. A study by James Millward, Professor at Georgetown University, showed that only fifty-seven of these deaths are detailed while the other 105 deaths are unclear. In addition, most of these incidents were small scale attacks that killed only one to two people. What is ambiguous is whether these attacks were “religious” attacks or “separatist” motivated attacks resulting from the ethnic tensions. The Chinese government has also had crackdowns on separatists. For example, in 2002 an Uyghur poet, Tursunjan Emet, was arrested for writing a poem labelled as an “ethnic separatist crime in the area of the ideological front”, and in 2005, an Uyghur author, Nurmemet Yasin, was sentenced to ten years in prison for “inciting separatism”.
This is not to say that violence in Xinjiang has not been increasing recently, but that the links between the violence and Islamic terrorism are equivocal. In his analysis on ethnic minority tensions in China, Reza Hasmath, Professor at Oxford University, notes several violent attacks recently. In June 2013, thirty-five people were killed in Xinjiang due to ethnic violence attacks between the Uyghurs and Hans after a car explosion in Beijing. But how many of these attacks were a result of Islamic terrorism, and is there a strong relation between Uyghurs and ISIL? An Iraqi report in September held that a Chinese man was fighting for ISIL, and it was automatically assumed that the man must be Uyghur. This led to large concern by Chinese analysts claiming that ISIL may have “cells” in Xinjiang, despite the lack of evidence to prove this. Also, the Chinese government accused the Uyghurs being behind the “terrorist attack” which occurred on July 28th killing thirty-seven people. This justified their immediate shooting of fifty-nine “terrorists” and arresting of another 215. Without the facts providing reason for the violence, Chinese authorities label many attacks as “terrorism” to justify their crackdowns on separatists or any other group that entices violence.
Claiming that the ban on the Islamic veil is a part of an effort to crackdown on terrorists and to fight the “ISIL threat” is counterproductive and reinforces the repression that the Uyghurs have been facing for the past decades. To claim that the Islamic veil is linked to terrorism or ISIL in itself is irrational. Many people in Egypt and Pakistan wear the hijab, but Egypt only has approximately four people fighting for ISIL for every million inhabitants, and Pakistan only one per million. This is in contrast to Sweden, which has an estimated thirty-two fighters per million and Australia with thirteen per million. The banning of the veil and of other forms of religious activity likely increases the chance of terrorist activity, rather than decreasing it, as people feel progressively marginalized in their homeland. If the Chinese government is hoping to push out the Uyghurs by repressing them in order to lessen “Islamic terrorism”, they are failing indeed.