With the rise of ISIS to prominence as a political entity in the Middle East, fears of its further influence dominate headlines. Because most of the discussion surrounding ISIS in particular and radical Islam in general is confined to developments in the Middle East, some scholars overlook these issues in their global context. Islam is a global religion and discontent that fosters militancy is a global concern. With that said, scholars ought to study the triangular relationship between radical Islam, the Uyghur people who inhabit the Xinjiang region of China, and Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Certainly this subject has not been completely ignored. Yet given that acts of terrorism have spiked throughout Xinjiang in recent years and arrests of Uyghur Muslims— the region’s dominant ethnic and religious identity— have skyrocketed, more discussion is warranted on the aforementioned triangular relationship. Each side of the triangle has its own unique interests. The Chinese government is in the precarious position of attempting to quell terrorism—a necessary and noble task indeed— while simultaneously ensuring its power over a people and region that largely rejects its authority. Although possibly implied, it ought to be explicitly noted that tactics intended to ensure Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang invariably compromise human rights in Xinjiang. The Uyghur people, on the other hand, are interested in preserving their religious and cultural identity as well political vitality in the face of increased islamophobia and Beijing’s reluctance to grant significant political power to Uyghur representatives. Finally, radical Islam’s interest in this bipolar relationship is to seize on Uyghur marginalization to further international Jihad.
The interests of the three sides are easily deciphered. Policy recommendations on how best to balance these sides and ensure stability, however, are difficult to ascertain. In fact, on a more elemental level, it is even difficult to understand how each side recognizes and confronts one another. For example, given that Uyghurs are less exposed to jihadist propaganda specifically and perspectives on international developments in general on account of the Great Firewall, can radical Islam significantly penetrate Xinjiang? Given the Orwellian presence of armed Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, is the development of an insurgency even feasible? Will Jihadist groups continue to shy away from financing efforts in Xinjiang under the belief that such a region is “unwinnable”? Will human rights abuses perpetuated by the Chinese government be enough to foster militancy in an ethnic group known for its aversion to violence?
Perhaps the above questions are unanswerable or will only answer themselves in time. However, the purpose of this commentary is not to propose theoretical questions or recommend policy. Such endeavors are not the expertise of the Laogai Research Foundation. The purpose of this essay is, however, to recognize this volatile triangle and the role than continued human rights abuses can play in exacerbating it. In doing so, we would like to conclude this commentary with an answer to a question that is often posed to us by academics: Will Xinjiang radicalize in response to continued Chinese suppression? Our response is ambiguous. Xinjiang’s status as a police-state undoubtedly quells the transfer of jihadist propaganda and probably dissuades terrorist acts, yet the brutal suppression of traditional and docile Uyghur customs by Chinese authorities undoubtedly fosters resentment that could prove to be a radicalizing force. Moreover, if China continues to jail nonviolent Uyghurs like academic Ilham Tohti, radical Islam will only become more enticing for an increasingly aggrieved community.