New England Review: China’s Islamist Separatist Threat: An Interview with Dr. Harold Rhode

When Islam swept along the ancient Silk Road a millennium ago, it found new adherents in what is now the People’s Republic of China. One ethnic group that responded were the Uyghurs (pronounced “wee-ghurs”), an indigenous Turkic-speaking people who adopted Sufism. The Uyghur heartland was contested by Turkic groups, Mongols and China. In the 18th Century the Qing Dynasty in China asserted control over Xinjiang. However, during the 19th Century, the Czarist Russian advance across Central Asia conquered the neighboring Khanates of Kokand and Bukhara. That led to Kokand general Yaqui Bey establishing a de facto Uyghur state in Kashgar in 1865.


The Qing dynasty in 1884, ultimately won back control over the agricultural heartland of Uyghur settlement in Xinjiang province. With the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, the Uyghurs who harbored irredentist aspirations briefly rose up in 1931 to 1934 to create an East Turkestan state, only to be crushed by Chinese Hui Muslim Nationalist forces. The second East Turkestan state was created during WWII with Soviet assistance in 1943 which lasted until 1949, when the Communist People’s Republic of China vanquished Nationalist forces in the province. The Uyghur leadership of East Turkestan mysteriously died on a plane flight back from Moscow, some believe on orders from Stalin.


The PRC established Xinjiang as the Uyghur Autonomous Region in Xinjiang (UXAR). In 1955, the PRC began a program of conscious resettlement of Han Chinese and investment of billions to exploit the vast natural resources of Xinjiang that encompasses fully one/sixth the land area of the PRC. This was in line with China’s strategy of “Go West” to exploit the rich agricultural, oil and gas resources. The PRC has been building a new Silk Road Eurasian Land Bridge rail network through Xinjiang connecting Russian and Chinese Pacific ports across the adjacent Central Asian republics into Russia leading ultimately to ports in the EU. The resettlement and enormous investments came at the expense of Uyghur ethnic presence in Xinjiang. Today the Muslim Uyghurs comprise roughly 45 percent of the Xinjiang’s population, approximately 10 million with the balance being Han Chinese settlers. There is an estimated Uyghur diaspora of over one million. Uyghur refugees who fled Xinjiang after the PRC takeover in the early 1950’s found refuge in Turkey that included creation of a permanent community and economic opportunities. Under Islamist President Erdogan, that role has continued most recently reflected in a dispute with China over repatriation of Uyghurs from Thailand.


Uyghur irredentism coupled with increasing Muslim extremism found support from Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Taliban in Pakistan and Central Asian republics after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. That led to armed Uyghur separatist attacks under the banner of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. This Muslim extremist separatist group, recognized as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department seeks to establish a supra national Turkic state composed of “sections of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).” According to a US State Department study Uyghurs have received “training and funding” and joined the ranks of Al Qaeda fighting US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Hasan Mahsum, a Uyghur from Xinjiang’s Kashgar region was killed “by Pakistani troops in 2003 during a raid on a suspected al-Qaeda hideout near the Afghanistan border.” His successor Abdul Haq was killed in Pakistan in 2010. Co-founder of the ETIM Memetuhut Memetrozi, serving a life sentence for terrorism in China was educated in a Madrassa in Pakistan. In 1996, China concluded the Shanghai Treaty “with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, using the accord to pressure Central Asian states to deter their ethnic Uighur minorities from supporting separatism in Xinjiang and to guarantee extradition of Uyghurs fleeing China.”


Deadly episodes involving Uyghur separatists have occurred. Probably the worst was 150 casualties in 2009 in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi caused by protests by Uyghur workers in the province of Guangdong against Han Chinese over alleged “racial violence.” In 2011 attacks were launched against Xinjiang officials, a police Station in Hotan “claiming four lives; bomb and knife attacks in Kashgar left at least twelve dead and over forty injured.” A 2013 car bombing attack in Tiananmen Square in Beijing killed five and injured 40. It was “officially blamed on the ETIM” by the PRC. It worsened in 2014, according to a Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder on the ETIM.


In March 2014, a leader of the Uyghur splinter group, the Turkestan Islamic Party, Abdullah Mansour vowed from his hideout in Pakistan to wage "a holy war against the Chinese," whom he described as "an enemy of all Muslims."


There is suspicion that among the foreign recruits of the Islamic State are Muslim extremist Uyghurs who are believed to have filtered into Syria via Turkey. China’s difficulty in controlling the rising Muslim fundamentalism in Xinjiang is reflected in recent draconian bans by Chinese authorities in Urumqi, of Muslim veils and head scarves for women and men growing long beards.


The problematic Uyghur Muslim extremist separatism and fundamentalism is apparently not reflected in another Muslim group in China, the Hui Muslims who number 11 million. The Hui can be found throughout China but are concentrated in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The Hui people are ethnic Han Chinese who were converted by or intermarried with Persian and Arab traders who brought Islam to the Eternal Kingdom. Hui was also a term used to describe both Nestorian Christians and Jews who came to China. The last Chinese-Jewish congregation in Kaifeng was scattered at the time of the Taipeng Rebellion in the 1850’s. Hui people had illustrious leaders, including the fabled Admiral Zheng He who led the famed treasure fleets to Indonesia, India, Africa and Arabia in the 15th Century.


The short lived First East Turkestan Republic was  ironically crushed by the 36th Hui Muslim Nationalist Division in battles at Kashgar in 1933 and 1934 led by Hui Generals, Ma Shaowu, General Ma Zhancang and General Ma Fuyuan. (Ma means Mohammed in Chinese). Clearly, the Hui people have evinced more loyalty to China than to Islamic Jihad imperatives. There is a reason for it. The Hui adopted their Islamic practices to fit the Confucian-influenced Chinese culture to the extent that their mosques have “traditional Chinese dynastic architecture with Islamic motifs.“


Against this background, we arranged to hold an interview with Dr. Harold Rhode who had spent several weeks in China this fall lecturing at universities throughout the country on Sunni Muslim extremism. The Chinese are interested in how Israel contends with this problem, while building one of the most innovative societies in a region known for its instability. This is our third interview with Dr. Rhode who retired as an Islamic Affairs expert in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense in 2010. See New English Review interviews, The Savior of Iraqi Jewish Heritage (Dec. 2013) and The Future of the Babylonian Jewish Archives (June 2014).

Click here to read the interview.

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