Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Xinjiang, Islam and Ethnicity

THE recent unrest in Urumqi, China has prompted some sections of the media to paint the issue in religious terms. That is, Muslim Uighurs against the non-Muslim Han Chinese.

The unrest is an ethnic issue and should not be mistaken for anything otherwise.

Members of the Uighur community are afraid that their culture and way of life are threatened by Beijing's policy of resettling Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Yes, being Muslim is a part of Uighur culture. But culture typically tends to be a more powerful force than religion. It generally accepts religious influences and synthesises religious values to create a moral code more acceptable to local culture.

To an Uighur, the symbols of "Uighurness" are far more numerous than just Islam. Their own particular form of food, their affinity with the Xinjiang region and the impact of Xinjiang's geography (being part of an ancient trade route) all play a part on the Uighur way of life.

It is dangerous to perceive the recent Xinjiang unrest through the prism of the global war on terror. Islamic militancy and Uighur unrest are not pages from the same book. The Uighur situation is far more akin to events in Tibet and Chinese policy towards ethnic minorities than the war in Afghanistan.

Islamic militants will be happy to hijack the grievances of the Uighur community to pursue their own global agenda.

It is, therefore, important that Chinese government policies and the global community's response do not create another (unnecessary) front in the battle against Islamic militancy by pushing Uighur dissidents into the arms of Islamic militants.

Uighurs are Muslims, but the recent unrest has nothing to do with Islam.

My comment was published in the Straits Times on July 22, 2009.

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