After Uighur Attacks, Understanding Muslims in China

A series of attacks in the Xinjiang region of northwest China have raised concern about Muslim separatists, who the government says is responsible for the violence. Michel Martin talks to Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, about understanding the religious and political goals of the diverse Muslim community in China.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to continue our discussion about the Olympics with a different focus now, security. Earlier this month, two men stole a truck and rammed it into a group of police on their morning jog. Days later, bombers targeted a police station, government building, bank, and shops, killing 16 policemen and 16 others. And this week, an attacker stabbed civilian guards, killing three of them at a roadside checkpoint.

These attacks happened in Xinjiang, a sprawling region of deserts and mountains in western China, where a Muslim separatist group has been having confrontation with the Chinese government. This group makes up a tiny fraction of the 20 million Muslims in China. To find out more about this, we called Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. He was kind enough to interrupt his vacation to talk with us. Welcome, and thanks for speaking with us.

Dr. DRU GLADNEY (President, Pacific Basin Institute, Pomona College): Nice to talk with you, Michel.

MARTIN: First, I'm going to admit my ignorance and tell you I did not even know there was a significant Muslim population in China. Can you just tell me more about that?

Dr. GLADNEY: Well, I think the reason for that is that the western focus tends to be on Tibet. We all kind of know where Tibet is, what some of the Tibet issues are. Almost everyone in the world knows who the Dalai Lama is. So the Muslims of China, not only did they live in a very remote area and have a very difficult name to pronounce, and they are in a region that's difficult to pronounce, their activities often get overshadowed and ignored.

MARTIN: So, I do - I have that right that there are about 20 million Muslims in China?

Dr. GLADNEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And is there diversity within that group?

Dr. GLADNEY: Yes, and it's a very important distinction because the ones that are causing the problems today that we've been seeing are quite different than the majority of the Muslims in China. The largest group in China are know as the Hui. And most people just know them as the Chinese speaking Muslims because they live in every city. They speak Chinese. They have been integrated into Chinese society for 1,200 years. Beijing city has 200,000 of them. You can't go anywhere without finding a Muslim-Chinese restaurant. But they're quite distinct from the ones in western China, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and that's the area where we've been having problems.

MARTIN: Is Islam freely practiced in China? Obviously, this has been kind of a focus of President Bush's visit. He's made a point of trying to be a voice for religious tolerance. Is Islam freely practiced?

Dr. GLADNEY: Like every religion in China, there's a yes and a no to this. In the sense that there are mosques, travel on the pilgrimage to Mecca, they practice all the Muslim religious holidays. It's really when Muslims get engaged in political activities that their faith comes under scrutiny by the government.

MARTIN: So I was going to ask you that. What's the source of the conflict then, between the people who are engaging in these attacks on sort of government entities and the government? What's the conflict?

Dr. GLADNEY: The root cause most people feel and most Uighurs tend to say, it's more related to sovereignty issues, to claims to the land, to greater access to resources. You know, these areas, there have been enormous oil deposits that have been discovered, that has a booming economy. And the Uighurs, the local population for whom the region's named, really do not feel that they are benefitting enough from that development.

MARTIN: Chinese officials in part explain a security presence which has been significant by all accounts. Their explanation is that they have to guard against terrorists attacks, which may be motivated by this group. Is that a fair concern?

Dr. GLADNEY: Well, I think it is a fair concern now with all of the attacks that have been going on. It had been very quiet and dormant since the late 1990s. In the late 1990s, we had several quite well coordinated attacks. But that died down, and we think the large reason is the heavy security crack down.

But also, many of the young Uighurs involved became quite disillusioned. They had hoped that, like the neighboring provinces of the former Soviet central Asia, they might have an independent East Turkestan or Uighuristan. And when that did not happen, many of them really I think sort of gave up the dream of that. And so for the last 10 years, there have been very isolated incidences of civil unrest, but there hasn't been any organized militancy that we can see.

One important point that I didn't really make very well is that with this large diversity of Muslims in China, very few of them support these terrorist actions. Uighurs outside of China have condemned it. They condemn violence. Many of them want independence or greater autonomy, but most of them opposed violence, opposed terrorism. They think it gives the Uighurs' cause a bad name. It gives Islam a bad name.

MARTIN: What about after the Olympics are over, and the world's attention moves elsewhere, as it inevitably does? Do you have any sense of what Chinese authorities are likely to do in relation to this group in this region?

Dr. GLADNEY: The hope is that the Olympics will be successful, and that there will be no major disruptions. And then after the Olympics, China can reassess its policies in the area and maybe loosen things up. Some people feel that the crackdown has been so severe that it really is exacerbating some of the tensions.

I mean, these are long-term tensions, both ethnic and religious tensions in the region. And so, if China could find a way to open up dialogue with some of these groups, both internally and externally, there might be progress. But the Uighurs are really eager to put their case to the Chinese government, and there had been no discussions between these groups and China. This is very different than what's happened with the Tibetan external organizations, where China has meetings at very high levels in China with these people.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Dr. GLADNEY: I think that, one, of course, there is no single representative for the Uighurs like the Dalai Lama. There's no agreed upon agenda or solution. And I think China wants to avoid giving legitimacy to any one single individual organization. They also don't want this organization to unify. So I think there are real complications there. But increasingly, and I think Chinese themselves, are recognizing the need to open up dialogue.

MARTIN: Are there any Muslim Chinese - any Uighurs participating in the Olympics?

Dr. GLADNEY: Yes, there are. And, this is what's fascinating. It hasn't really been mentioned in the news very much. There are least three Uighurs on the men's Olympic boxing team, and they've done very well, I understand.

MARTIN: Dru Gladney is the president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. He was kind enough to interrupt his vacation to join us on the phone from Hawaii. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. GLADNEY: Nice talking with you, Michel.

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