Recently, after months of operation, news of China’s internment camps for Chinese Muslims finally received media attention. It is well known that China is no bastion of religious freedom, but the extent of their religious persecution is often discussed far less than the subject merits. Whether it is the demolition of Christian churches or restrictions on where Muslims are able to lawfully travel, it seems that the Communist Party of China has no limits when it comes to persecuting religious groups. The recent discovery of “education camps” for Muslims in China revealed the demeaning and oppressive relationship China has with its religious minorities.
Around one million Muslims have been detained in these camps for months at a time, and previous detainees have reported cases of waterboarding, communist indoctrination classes, being shackled for up to 12 hours at a time, and being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol (which are violations of their religious code).
The Chinese government began enacting this method of dealing with its Muslim population in response to recent terrorist attacks conducted by Muslims within its borders. China is not typically the first country that comes to mind when we think of terrorism. But over the past decade or so, China has experienced a significant increase in terrorist activity, and it seems unlikely to stop anytime soon. The Uighurs, a Chinese Muslim group in the Xinjiang region in the country’s northwest, has claimed responsibility for these attacks. They have killed hundreds of Chinese citizens, and it was reported last year that at least 114 Uighurs traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and vowed to “shed blood like rivers” when they returned to China.
This is not merely an issue of terrorism; the rise of Muslim extremism in China and China’s response is as much a clash of cultures and geography as it is a response to terror. Xinjiang is the most economically and politically advantageous region in China. Economically, Xinjiang is China’s most abundant source of oil, natural gas, and coal, and its GDP has been increasing exponentially in recent years. Politically, Xinjiang borders eight countries, including Russia and Afghanistan. Considering these factors, Xinjiang is a strategic area to control.
While it is unclear as to when the Uighur people settled in Xinjiang, most agree they are the region’s indigenous people. There was significant unrest in Xinjiang until China officially seized control in the eighteenth century. Since then, Xinjiang has gone from being an agrarian economy to one driven by oil and natural gas production. In addition to changing economics, there has been a profound cultural and ethnic shift in the region as Uighurs have fallen to being only 45 percent of the total population.
Unsurprisingly, because of this demographic shift, the indigenous Uighurs have felt marginalized by the Chinese government. This marginalization has had a devastating effect on Uighur-Chinese relations and has driven Uighurs toward a type of ethnic nationalism where they find pride in belonging to a radicalized version of their religion. This radicalization has resulted in multiple attacks on the Chinese people, and in response the Chinese-backed Xinjiang regional government has implemented more restrictions on Uighurs, thus inevitably perpetuating their marginalization and attacks.
To date, the Chinese government has initiated a number of restrictive measures on Uighur culture. These range from regulating the number of children Uighurs may legally have, restricting the length a man’s beard may be, and setting an age when young men are eligible to attend prayers at mosques. In order to ensure that these regulations are followed, the Xinjiang government has reportedly posted nearly 100,000 ads for policing personnel. Finally, this year the Chinese government achieved a new depth of religious persecution with the establishment of internment and brainwashing camps. In these camps, Muslim populations are bombarded with communist propaganda for hours at a time and pressured to violate their religion. If they refuse to participate or conform, then they are punished—often violently.
It would be reasonable to assume that, as a byproduct of these restrictions against Uighurs, the Chinese can expect more radicalization and attacks. But there must be some alternatives to the current Chinese approach. There is a way to minimize the Uighurs’ terrorist activity while respecting their culture and human rights. Compromise is the key to not only diplomacy in the region but to peace and de-escalation as well.
In my estimation, the best way to understand how China can best handle its Uighur problem is by looking at how other countries have handled similar situations and learning from them. Good models for engagement with religious minorities can be hard to find. For instance, France’s model treatment of Muslims has not only perpetuated attacks but also made them more frequent overall. In contrast, the United Kingdom provides helpful insights; British regulations regarding Muslims have resulted in a considerable decrease in Muslim-committed terror incidents in recent years.
Ultimately, I believe that if any or all of the UK’s practices concerning Muslims are enacted in Xinjiang regarding the Uighur people then it is probable that China would see a decline in terrorism due to the Uighurs’ renewed respect and acceptance in their country. Ironically, in an effort to become respected by its people, China is making its people feel disrespected, and in turn they are disrespecting the country more adamantly. People (whether atheistic communists, Christians, or Muslims) simply want to have happiness and feel a sense of belonging with other people. For this reason, once Uighurs feel a sense of belonging and allegiance to China and their fellow countrymen, they would be less receptive to radicalization. But if Muslims are not allowed to practice their religion freely or to establish their own communities, China should expect continued and exacerbated unrest in the Xinjiang region. Similarly, Christians in China can expect continued persecution and marginalization from the government as long as there is limited religious freedom in the country.
For these reasons and many more, the solutions provided above ought to be considered in areas where religious persecution is prevalent. Although these options may not be optimal, sometimes compromise is necessary for the sake of peace.
Jimmy Lewis holds a BS in Biblical Studies and Theology as well as an MA in Philosophy of Religion from Liberty University. His scholarly interests are in ethics, religion, and foreign policy.
Photo Credit: Friday prayers at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. September 10, 2010. By Preston Rhea, via Flickr.